Born and raised in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland, author David O’Brien studied environmental biology and later deer biology at University College Dublin. But rather than pursue his lifelong interest in wolves and predator-prey interactions after completing his doctorate, O’Brien instead opted to teach English in Madrid. After moving to Boston with his wife, he continued teaching at Boston’s Cathedral High School and Bridgewater State College for seven years before returning to Spain, where he currently teaches English and science in his wife’s hometown of Pamplona.
In his teenage years, O’Brien began writing poetry, and had one of his poems published in Cadenza, a Dublin-based magazine at the age of fourteen. In the years since, he has had additional poems published in journals and anthologies such as Albatross, The Tennessee State Poetry League, Poems of Nature and various anthologies of Forward Press imprint in Britain. In addition, O’Brien’s non-fiction articles have been published in Hot English magazine and for the Boston newspaper Dig.
O’Brien’s first novel, Leaving the Pack, was published in May of 2014. Drawing upon his background in biology and wildlife, the book tells the tale of a group of modern-day werewolves and their struggles to conform in daily society. O’Brien’s most recent book, The Ecology of Lonesomeness, is a captivating tale of love and mystery set against the backdrop of Scotland’s legendary Loch Ness.
To learn more about O’Brien and his writing, visit him online at davidjmobrien.wordpress.com.
What was your upbringing like, and how did it shape who you are today?
My upbringing was on the one hand pretty standard, and on the other hand, privileged. I am second of four, with a stay-at-home mother and a happy family. We weren’t well-off, but we were fine compared to some kids I knew in school. We lived in the suburbs of Dublin at the end of a cul-de-sac where there was a small wood, a field, ditches, a stream and an industrial estate all within the radius of “out” when our mother ordered us “out.” We played rounders and kick the can and soccer for literally hours on end, caught tadpoles, stickleback fish, and birds, built camps and tree houses, go-karts and bike ramps, had cows in the field behind us, bonfires at Halloween and a wealth of interesting things to find in the dumpsters with which to do mischief: from dried peas to flick with ice-pop sticks, to electromagnets to make tripwires with the copper wire, to aerosol cans to make blow-torches with; we climbed trees and lamp posts and factory fire escapes, and I never remember being indoors much, even when it was a typical rainy Irish summer. We had our chores, and a fixed timetable. We had a curfew that was pretty strict. If I was half an hour over, I had to have a damn good excuse. I remember running so fast home one night at seventeen (it was twelve-thirty AM) that the police pulled up along side and asked me where I was running to. I said I was late home, gave my address and they nodded. My dad knew a lot of cops and they probably knew him, and knew his kid would indeed be running home. That’s not to say I didn’t stay out later than curfew and hope to make up the time by running home instead of walking!
I think it all gave me some of my imagination, and pushed me to do things I might be otherwise disinclined do to — like sneak through a chain link fence into an prohibited area where the gardener would chase you out for trespassing, or jumping a stream knowing you were probably going to fall in if you didn’t jump for all your might. I don’t know if this makes me special. I think not. I think that people who miss out this kind of childhood don’t have a whole lot of what I consider normal life skills. There are kids who can’t light a fire, but when you’ve had to set, light and get the coal and logs for so many it becomes second nature. Being out in the open air and up in the hills with my father might have helped my love of nature, but my two brothers had the same experiences so I think that was innate anyway. Becoming type 1 diabetic at the age of fifteen has shaped me I suppose, made me more independent and self-reliant than I otherwise might be, though I am still kinda lazy.
How did you initially become interested in writing, and specifically in writing poetry?
I remember writing a poem in primary school, for class. I had a new copybook and a week or so later I wrote another poem — I was eleven years old. The poem was about autumn. I don’t remember it because my older brother decided he needed a new copybook and tore out the poem and kept the notebook. He admitted it a few weeks later when I went looking for it. I didn’t write a poem for years. When I was fourteen, my dad gave me some notebooks he’d picked up at work. I had a green pen and I sat down on my bedroom floor and played around some words, and came up with my third poem, which told a story of sorts. I wrote a poem or two every week that summer and pretty soon they went from just ballads to something trying for more. I got one of my first, “The Monarch of the Glen,” in the school magazine. My English teacher said well done, but when I went back to him years later (10 years later) with a pile of poems to get his critical opinion, he (and me, too, I must admit) had forgotten all about that early poem in the school mag. He said they were good enough to publish, but that didn’t mean anyone would want to publish them!
But those notebooks were vital for me — a reason to write on something nice. I got some more notebooks and the bigger ones looked perfect to write short stories on. By then, I suppose I was primed to write, but I needed the spark to start, it seemed.
Growing up, who were your biggest creative influences?
I read voraciously from the age of eight when a library opened up just past the radius of “out,” in the crossroads where the local supermarket and other shops were, which we’d to ask permission to visit (because of the roads). I read all the children’s books that looked worth reading and then went on to adult (picking around two or three from the YA shelves). The Narnia books stayed with me, and after I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I read Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. They made a big impression, though I haven’t been able to write fantasy thus far.
What inspired the story of Leaving the Pack?
I read the book The Wolfen, by Whitley Strieber (if you haven’t read it, do, this summer). Then I watched the film. I was already interested in real wolves, had started studying biology in university. The idea that the myth could have come from some beings physically like one species but behaviorally like the other was intriguing to be. But I saw right away that he’d got it the wrong way around. People had already vilified wolves for centuries, had made them crafty and able to speak in their propaganda nursery rhymes, which are still capable of scaring the bejaysus out of kids nowadays when they’ll unfortunately never see a wolf in their life — I still haven’t seen one and it’s my life’s ambition! Why would people invent a man-wolf? Unless, the man-wolf was a man who behaved like a wolf, was wolfish, and they’d a reason to hate him. I imagined that the source of the werewolf myth is a race of people who are more hirsute than your average joe, but who also retain the intense hormonal surges that accompany the full moon and which our female menstrual cycle is probably a vestige of. They must have gone a little crazy, because of these hormones, been pretty strong like a beast, and if they were hated, why not because they were liable to attract the village girls of a moonlit night due to retaining pheromones that attract the opposite sex, as found in many other mammals?
How has your scientific background helped to shape the stories you choose to tell and the manner in which you tell them?
I think it lets me start stories which contain a certain amount of science without stopping to worry too much about research, but at the same time, choose stories that need science and feel confident I can tell them. My style of writing has always been borrowed more from my fiction reading than my formal study. I remember while writing my doctoral thesis, my supervisor correcting many errors and shortening sentences. He said I wrote the way I spoke, which was all right, but conversational writing was way too long for science (my thesis ran to three-hundred pages plus, so he was right in a way, though part of it was his fault for letting me collect too much data!). When I write, though, I need to have realism in the story, even if I’m writing about ghosts or werewolves or Leprechauns. It needs to be scientifically plausible. It makes the stories more real to me, and I hope to my readers.
How have you evolved as a writer over the years?
I have become more aware of what will work and what won’t, I think. I spent a long time on my first novel, so I had developed an idea of my “voice” by the time it was fully finished. I had by then learnt what’s juvenile and what’s just okay enough to stay to stay. Since leaving Ireland and teaching English, I have learned more about words, so I make fewer mistakes and I don’t need a thesaurus as often. I understand the meaning of assert and purport and state, and don’t need to be corrected, like I did as an undergraduate writing scientific papers!
I wish I could say I’ve also learned to be disciplined and efficient, and not use too many words at the first draft, but I still need a half an hour to get into the writing, spend too much time distracted and write too many notes before sitting down to do typing so I have to reformulate random stuff I’ve written rather than write good stuff straight off. At least I’ve learned to cut a little bit better between first and second and second and third drafts.
Do you read reviews of your own work? If so, how do they affect your approach to writing?
I do have a look at them, especially of course, those I’ve requested. They don’t change how I write at all, I don’t think. The less-than-stellar reviews are disappointing, of course, but you have to shrug and move on. Writing to suit others is not something I’ve ever done, and writing to suit reviewers who aren’t fans of you genre or style is probably a waste of time.
When you’re in need of inspiration, where do you turn?
I don’t find myself in need of inspiration much, more of a need to get away from things, but they bring me to the same place: Nature. I get out of doors, out of the city if I can or to a park. Luckily it’s dead easy in Pamplona to escape. Even a hundred yards will take me to a view of the mountains and a nice breeze. I concentrate on the sky, the clouds, the birds, and pretty soon my brain sorts itself out and ideas start forming.
What do you find most rewarding about being a teacher?
I love when kids ask questions that make me have to think. Some of their questions are things that I’ve had before, or I wondered myself as a kid and have since figured out. Others are kind of bizarre in their ignorance (I could tell a few humdingers!) and then there are a few which I’ve never heard or never thought about, and I have to pause, think, and sometimes tell them I’ll come back to them. Well, I often tell kids I’ll come back to them, even if I have the answer ready, since they can ask questions that tie in really well with what we’re talking about, but just five minutes later would be perfect, so I’ll come back to them and it helps bring the others attention to the explanation when I can say, “and to go back to what Jimmy asked five minutes ago…” I usually come up with some plausible explanation for the question before the end of class, but it’s great to have to think on your feet and be challenged by kids who show they are thinking. Some kids can be a bit overbearing with all their questions, or worse, their commentary and additional information that the rest of the class doesn’t need to know, but when there is an unassuming kid just sitting there soaking up the information it’s a great feeling, and when you ask a few pointed questions and realize that there is a teenager in the room with an intellect way ahead of your own, with so much potential just waiting for a critical mass of knowledge to far surpass you yourself, it’s extremely gratifying.
How did you meet your wife?
She was on her Erasmus year in Ireland from her university in Spain, doing her third year of biology, and I was in my first year of my doctorate studies. It was tradition that the first years do the donkey work for the Biological Society, so I was secretary. We organized a weekend away to visit the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland (actually more of a geological place of interest, but we’re short on National Parks in Ireland) and her and around eight other Spaniards came along. I didn’t actually take a whole lot of notice of her until a friend said she was beautiful. Upon consideration, I realized he was right and after that weekend we started seeing one another. We’d a great year while she was in Dublin, with lots of foreign students, pretty much all of whom started some kind of relationship that year. To my knowledge we’re the only ones who go married, though we did have a couple of years separated while she started her PhD in Madrid and I was still stuck in Ireland finishing mine. I moved to Madrid and proposed two years later.
What are you working on next?
I am finishing the third part of the Silver Nights Trilogy. I have a draft of the second part done, and will go back and rewrite it once I have part three ended. I decided to write them both in tandem so I can keep all the characters in my head and not have to go back and read very much after a break. I hope to have them ready for beta readers before Christmas.
I have just outlined a YA novel set in Wicklow, a mountainous area south of Dublin, which I might start on this fall, though I have some other projects waiting for attention, especially my long novel, Paul and the Pyramid Builders, which I am halfway through the first draft of after around 120k words.