Thrilled to be able to chat with Paul O'Neill, author of "The Swirly People", featured in our latest anthology It Calls From the Doors
Opening: Without giving away the story, tell us a little bit about the story you have in this collection Doors. What was your inspiration?
There was an episode of the Twilight Zone (or a similar knock-off version of the show, I’m not sure) that had alien faces phased down from the ceiling. It terrified me as a child (still does!). I wouldn’t sleep in a bunk bed if it was too close to the ceiling.
It was only when I reread Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper that this childish fear hit me again. And so, The Swirly People came into being. I didn’t realise until after I submitted it for this awesome collection that there are serious coronavirus vibes in there.
How did you become a horror writer?
I didn’t set out to be a horror writer. When I started taking writing seriously, I had a sprawling copycat version of Game of Thrones outlined. When that didn’t work, I moved on to a fictional version of America, creating my own thriller series around my version of the NFL. Both were truly awful and will never see the light of day!
After that, I started doing a lot of automatic writing exercises and not plotting anything at all. What came out were these short horror stories. When writing them, I felt something align within me. I found a home.
Now that I think about it, there are three reasons why horror makes sense as my natural genre. First, I’m all about the underdog. I come from a working class family and have seen some of the struggles the world tends to forget about. Horror fits this as it’s typically about the little person in a terrible situation.
Second, I’m a natural worrier. I tend to see the bad that can happen with every situation. I don’t know why this is, but it comes in handy when planning corporate events for work.
Third, Blockbuster didn’t give a hoot what age you were. In the golden age of horror, my weekly trips to the rental shop saw me and my mates come out with armfuls of 18+ films – something I’d never let my kids do! Specially not watching Poltergeist 3 with your cereal in the morning when you were just nine years old – still can’t look in a mirror for too long.
What piece of writing are you most proud of and why?
My debut collection, The Nightmare Tree, is out now. It features some of my best work. Writing those stories helped me through a lot and I can already see how much I’ve improved as a writer since I started out.
It features stories about killer frogs, a holy spider, a blob, introversion, action figures that come to life, a snowman, and a nightmare tree that grants wishes. If any of that sounds like your bag, check it out.
What’s your favourite trope in the horror genre? To read? To Write?
Haunted houses. There’s something about a person’s home ‘not being right’ that unnerves me. Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is one of the scariest things I’ve ever read, and the haunted house (or haunted place) motif comes up a lot in my work.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I wouldn’t go as far to say I have any rituals. I’m more of a write-when-you’ve-got-any-time kind of writer, and that’s usually when work is done and kids are in bed. I do need to have my headphones on and some dark ambient music playing to accompany my black coffee.
The ritual is usually ended when my one-year-old decides to get up.
Any advice for people who are considering becoming an author?
Do it. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve learned so much more about myself. I’ve relived childhood memories (good and bad!) that I’d forgotten about. Most of all – it heals me on a daily basis.
Be honest about why you’re doing it. Want to be famous? Live out your vilest fantasies? Need to get the voices out your head? Want your kids to find a suitcase in the attic full of your weird stories so they know what Dad’s life was like? If you’re honest about why you’re doing it, and what you’re aim is, you can focus your attention on that. It’s helped me when picking out what story to write next.
And if you are just starting out, go easy on yourself. Find out who you really are as a writer (and person) by trying automatic writing and listening to what your inner self wants to say, rather than any preconceived notions you might have.
Paul O’Neill is a short fiction writer from Scotland. He is a PR / Internal Communications professional who battles the demon of corporate-speak on a daily basis. His stories have appeared in Scare Street’s Night Terrors series, Purple Wall Stories, and Fae Corps Press’ Nightmare Whispers anthology and he has been shortlisted during a Writers’ Forum competition. His debut collection, The Nightmare Tree, is now available. You can also find him sharing his love of short stories on twitter @PaulOn1984.