Q&A with author Patrick O’Neil

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Earlier in the week I published a review and giveaway of one of my favourite travel books, Sideways – Travels With Kafka, Hunter S. and Kerouac (which I encourage you to enter, by the way).  I was fortunate enough to be able to have a free-wheeling chat with the author while drinking too much coffee and watching pretty girls walk past a couple of weeks ago, and this Q&A session is the upshot.  Hope you enjoy it!

Most of the previous reviews that I’ve seen of Sideways seem to portray you as some kind of crazy wild man, bouncing around the world from one drug addled experience to the next.  How close is that to the real Patrick O’Neil?

I suppose there’s a slice of crazy wild man in me, but the description doesn’t capture my entire personality, just one aspect. I think most of the early interviewers seized on the drug-related stuff because it was attention grabbing. But as anyone who has travelled will know, there is a lot of downtime in between the road’s wild adventures. I was drawing my best/craziest stories from nearly a decade of travelling, so there was plenty going on otherwise. From my experience you spend much more time reflecting on the road than you do risking your life or taking drugs or being arrested. Undoubtedly, I do have a wild streak but if you met me face to face I doubt “wild crazy man” would be your first impression. I like to think that I can get along with anyone, not just my fellow lunatics.

Does the misrepresentation bother you, or is any publicity good publicity for a first time author?

Before the book came out I was concerned that Sideways would be perceived as nothing more than a book about taking drugs around the world. In my view it’s not a book about that at all. But the truth is, the drug elements of the book did attract the attention of the media and probably contributed to the great publicity I received when the book came out. In hindsight, it’s better if people are talking about your book for any reason, even if it’s not your preferred reason. If they are talking about it then there’s a better chance they’ll read it and then make their own judgments.

You met several people during the course of your travels that you seemed to forge a close bond with and share some incredible experiences.  Do you still keep in touch with them today now that you’re all living quite different lives?

Unfortunately, meeting brilliant people on the road happens far less often than you would hope. For that reason, when I find someone who I feel I have a real connection with I try to run the course with them as far as it goes. In all my travels I’ve probably only met 10 people who I keep in regular contact with, but I’m blessed to have those people. I regularly email about five characters in Sideways – probably about fortnightly – and somehow we manage to maintain incredibly close relationships despite the geographical distance. That and there’s always the lingering temptation to shoot off to whatever crazy part of the world they find themselves in…

At what point did you realise that there might be more than just some good bar-room travel tales lurking amongst your experiences, and decide to write a book about them?

Anyone who’s spent a bit of time on the road has their own tales. The longer you’re out there, the greater the chance that crazy/brilliant/horrible things will happen to you. But writing Sideways was more a catharsis than merely the documenting of my wilder times. I’d spent so much of my 20s travelling that writing the book ended up being my way of understanding why I did it, what kept my wanderlust burning and what I’d gained from all those years on the road.
Initially I returned home to write a novel but decided I’d get a couple of travel yarns down first. From there Sideways just kept spilling out – it decided it was going to be my first book, not me. By the time I was four chapters in there was no turning back.

A few technical questions: How long did it take you to write Sideways from start to finish?  Did you find that the writing flowed easily, given that you were talking about real life experiences, or was it just hard work?  How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?

I wrote two chapters of Sideways in New York in December 2007 then got the ball rolling again when I returned home in March 2008. In May 2008 I was lucky enough to get an agent who began setting me deadlines, which certainly expedited the process. All in all it took me eight months to complete, three lazyish months then five months writing pretty much full time. Generally the writing flowed easily. I try to change it up as much as possible, so if it’s not flowing on one story or chapter then I switch to another. I try to write the parts I feel like writing at that moment so I’m always enthusiastic. If you’re bored when you’re writing, there is a fair chance your reader will be bored too. But if you’re loving the feeling of the words flowing out then the reader will probably be enjoying themselves too.
Deciding what to leave in and out just came naturally, though we did cut an entire chapter from the final version and the conclusion was the very last thing I wrote, submitting it one day before my final deadline. I needed to stew on that one for a while.

Some of the experiences you had seem pretty out there – dance parties in the Sahara, being shaken down by corrupt cops on Ipanema or the increasingly freakish moments while holed up in a one horse town in the Mexican desert, amongst others.  Did everything happen pretty much as described, at least as far as you can remember, or did you employ a bit of artistic license here and there?

People often ask me this and let me assure you, every story and ever major moment in Sideways is 100 percent true. All those stories happened to me, and if you read it I suspect you’ll agree that most of them would have been pretty hard to make up. Was every line of dialogue word-for-word? It was as best I could remember, but if not exact it was very close. Was the guy wearing a yellow shirt or a green one? With that stuff I can only rely on memory. Was I arrested in Ipanema, at a dance party in the Sahara and stalked by deranged cowboys in a remote Mexican desert? Absolutely. Re-reading some of those chapters I still shudder from the memories.

The type of travelling that you do in Sideways – shedding commitments to hit the road for months at a time with few plans beyond the next bus ride to the middle of nowhere – seems a world away from the organised tours and backpacker trails that characterise many other people’s experiences.  Do you have any advice for anybody else considering taking the road less travelled?

I would say: just get over there and work it out then. All the most magical things that have happened to me on the road were when I found myself following my instincts to places I never expected to end up in. Anyone who’s been travelling will tell you that on the road there are endless destinies. What seems like the most insignificant decision at the time can have life-changing implications. Sometimes an extra beer in a bar will take you east instead of west and all of a sudden you’re in a different continent, you have new friends. Life unfolds very differently. For me the tourist destinations are rarely the highlights. Of course there are some things you have to check out, but it’s all the things you didn’t expect that often make a trip special. Have a vague destination but be as flexible as you can – you have to leave room for the unexpected.

Of all of the places you’ve been and experiences that you’ve had over the years, what is the one thing that sticks in your mind the most – for better or for worse?

It is strange what stays with you most intimately. For me one of my most vivid moments was driving down a backstreet in the Brazilian interior having arrived in the country without a word of Portuguese, friendless and with no idea where I was going then finding myself in paradise with a group of new friends and running off into beautiful field peppered with palm trees as the sunset unfolded before me. It is those glimpses of pure, sublime freedom and the unbridled joy that can spring from it that keep me returning to the unknown of the road.

At the end of the book you write a touching soliloquy to your home town of Melbourne, about the reality of returning from a life of travel to try to reintegrate into the lives of the friends and family you left behind.  As you say, ‘it takes a different kind of bravery to live a sedentary life […] the pendulum of life’s highs and lows rarely swings as wide’.  I know this is something that I have long struggled with.  Do you still feel the pull of the road calling you regularly, or are you happy to hang up that battered travel fedora for the foreseeable future?

Hang up the battered fedora? Never! As I become older I can better appreciate the delights and the security of home – spending time with old friends, having a regular income, being able to further my life in tangible ways – but the road will always be my irresistible mistress. I love Melbourne like no other, but I thrive on the unknown and will never give up on the delights my mistress offers. In truth, last year (when Sideways was first released) was the first in a long time that I didn’t get overseas and I’m jumping out of my skin at the moment. Who could ever give up on grand adventure?

And finally – I know you’re working on your second book at the moment.  Can you give a sneak insight into it?  When should your fans start scouring the bookshop shelves to pick up their copy?

I’m working on another memoir, this time with more of an Australian focus but plenty of overseas adventures too. I’m probably only a few months away from finishing it but from there it’s (hopefully) in the hands of the publishers and up to them when it’s released. Fingers crossed that the new book will be on the shelves next year.

Thanks again to Patrick O’Neil for his time, inspiration and general awesomeness (yes, it’s a word).  Don’t forget to enter the competition to win a copy of Sideways, or to buy a copy if you weren’t the lucky winner.  It’s a great book!

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