Monday, July 25, 2016

My First Time: Maureen O’Leary

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Maureen O’Leary, a writer and educator from Sacramento. She is the author of the novels How to Be Manly, The Arrow, and The Ghost Daughter. She is the winner of Heyday Books’ Sacramento Valley Writing Contest for Poetry, and her work will be included in a forthcoming book about the people and environment of the region. Her short stories and poetry appear in the publications of Esopus, Night Train Journal, Brackish Vol. 2, Prick of the Spindle, The Gold Man Review, and in Shade Mountain Press’ anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women.

My First Fiction Publication

Fifteen years ago a young man was beaten almost to death in his high school bathroom. The police caught the guys who jumped him because a film of the beating showed up online. The police never found the cameraman.

At the time, a beating filmed on a camera phone and posted online was a newsworthy event. Talk radio shows invited psychologists to discuss the kind of young person who could take video of another child’s suffering. People were more interested in the cameraman than they were in the perpetrators who had committed the violence. What kind of kid gets off on filming another kid’s humiliation and pain?

My first novel was my answer to that question. The story follows a senior in high school named Jordan whose conscience has been flattened by grief over the murder of his little sister at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend. Jordan enters into an uneasy alliance with a brutal classmate who enlists him as a kind of personal documentarian as he goes around meting out vicious beatings on other guys. When the bully’s violent attentions focus on a freshman girl in their school, Jordan helps her escape, only to find himself the target of retaliation.

Most authors claim to be embarrassed by their first novels. Not me. I loved The Camera Man. The novel said everything I wanted it to say. Jordan’s spirit was a blast site destroyed by his father’s drug addiction, his mother’s guilt, and his own grief. His road to redemption felt important to me. It still does. I’ve taught in rough schools filled with students with similarly tragic stories. Jordan’s struggles are all too real.

The Camera Man said everything I wanted to say in just the way I wanted to say it. I loved it. I believed in it. I researched agents carefully. I sent out my query and pages.

Let’s just say it was a good thing I loved my book, because nobody else did. One agent was kind enough to give revision tips and invite another submission, which she then rejected. Undaunted, I revised again, only to face more rejection. One agent told me the story was “too ugly.”

I moved on to write other novels. Meanwhile, I lifted a few scenes from The Camera Man and fashioned them into a short story and sent it to the New York art and literary magazine Esopus.

A few weeks later I got an email from Esopus editor and curator Tod Lippy telling me he liked the story and wanted to run it.

I had to reread the email many times to make sure it said what I thought it said before getting back to him. He asked if I was willing to do edits and I immediately replied yes.

My yes to Esopus began a several week editing process that stands as one of the most satisfying creative and learning experiences of my life. Tod Lippy got my story. In fact, he understood it better than I did. I learned from this editor craft advice specific to me that continues to serve me every time I sit down to write. Our weeks-long conversation produced an edited version that was the best work I’d ever done.

The Camera Man appeared in Esopus Fall 2008 Issue 11. The “Boom” issue is a wonderful edition of a breathtaking magazine that consistently breaks through the limits of possibility in art, words, photography, and publishing. Tod Lippy has a rare integrity of vision, and an absolute dedication to quality. There is no other publication quite like Esopus. If you’re smart, you’ll subscribe.

Tod Lippy’s yes to The Camera Man has been  an infinite jet pack of fuel for me in all of my writing projects, even eight years later. If somebody like Tod Lippy thinks my work is worthwhile, then it is. I’ll keep going. I’ll keep writing stories about the uncomfortably real, even when some would rather I write about prettier subjects. If a publication with Esopus’ level of integrity thinks I’m doing the right work, then I figure I’m on the right track.

Since my story’s appearance in Esopus, I’ve had three novels and several short stories, articles, and poems published. I’ve also edited and revised my firstborn novel anew dozens of times. I’m still proud of The Camera Man, and I hope to someday see it published by an insightful editor who loves the story, and who understands my characters maybe even better than I do.

After all, The Camera Man landed in the hands of the right editor at the right time once before. It could happen again.


  1. Great piece by Maureen! Thanks for featuring it here!

  2. Great piece - always believe in yourself even if no one else will. I just got the Ghost Daughter and in the midst of a much needed thunder and lightening storm will read it. That Loma Prieta earthquake always stands out in my mind and heart. I was in my late twenties and at the proverbial devil's crossroad at what to do in my life - so I closed my eyes, made the jump and I always thought the aftershocks are what caused it. I changed jobs, companies, states and relationships and when I went home, after visiting a man whom I had loved since I was a teenager, I received a phone call the next day that he had died of a heart attack. The hotel I was put up in for my new job for the night was set afire and we were all evacuated and then when the earthquake happened I remember so many people were watching the baseball playoffs on TV and I remember someone asked my best friend "Sue isn't in California right now is she?". So, all these years later, I must find out what other calamity I caused. But all kidding aside the reviews so far seem to be phenomenal and I do need to be reminded that I wasn't always 60 and even living on the edge is preferable to saying you'd had a life well lived. Don't ever stop

    1. Sue, thanks for sharing your sometimes-harrowing story.