Sean O’Brien is an educator and writer from Southern California. He is married and has two children along with an ever-growing number of animals. He was named Educator of the Year by the California League of High Schools and has been a head varsity football coach, television broadcaster, and Gilbert and Sullivan singer (though not a good one). He’s the author of A Muse of Fire, Wondrous Strange, and Vale of Stars.
Listen to an excerpt from Beltrunner
The theme of change holds a major influence in your novel Beltrunner. In what ways do you think fiction can help us better encounter change?
From an individual standpoint, fiction can let us lead another life. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Professor Faber makes the comment that fiction is a way to experience parts of the world we would ordinarily not get to experience. I tend to agree. We get one life each: I’m not going to ever actually be a young prince of Denmark whose father was murdered by my uncle, but I can read about it, which is the next best thing. I can experience another reality, deal with another set of challenges, and life another life in fiction. That’s pretty good preparation for change. On a societal level, books can take us down roads less traveled, can ask “what if?” about a whole range of issues. That’s why I think I gravitate towards speculative fiction so much. It asks “what if?” in ways more mundane fiction really can’t. Collier in Beltrunner is a man who desperately wants to change things, but when the opportunity comes to do so, he hesitates. I think that very much sums up a lot of our lives, don’t you? We all seem to want to change things for the better, but when the chalice is handed to us, we don’t always drink.
You and your wife were high-school sweethearts (as were Chip and Eddie of Sage and Savant). What is the most important thing you can do to keep love alive?
I’ll go back to the previous question and answer in a similar way. Change. I’ve been with my partner and best friend Sue for over 30 years, married for 26 of them. We’ve grown together, experienced a lot together, and changed together. It’s a curious thing, but change can be quite frightening. Having someone at your side who will ride the roller coaster with you is comforting. And, as we all know, roller coasters are much more fun with someone else. Being able to explore what love is–and do so with the same person–is one of the greatest joys of my life.
On your website, ‘seanobrienauthor.com/im-glad-you-asked-blog.’ you speak of both your teaching and your writing practice. How does teaching inform your writing and vice versa?
Well, my first novel, A Muse of Fire, was directly influenced by my teaching. Probably too much so, actually. Students are like a whole separate category of relationship. Not family, not friends, not colleagues, but a little bit of all of that. I went into teaching for very selfish reasons, actually. Teachers are quite selfish, no matter what they say. We all get a particular thrill by changing another human being. If I do it right, a student will exit my classroom a different person than when she entered. That’s incredibly powerful. I’m changing another person. So I suppose in my writing, I see my characters changing because they are learning. Sometimes the lesson isn’t a good one: sometimes what is learned can be horrible. But at the end of the story, each character has changed, has learned.
If you were able to travel to a distant planet but you could only take one keepsake item from home what would that be and why?
I’m tempted to answer a picture of my family, but I think I could remember them without the photo. Likewise, I’m also tempted to answer my wedding ring, but again, my marriage is in my heart, not on my hand. So I will go instead with my dining room table. When we gather as a family to play a game or have a meal, it’s there. I like to think that the grain of the wood of the table is infused with the laughter and good times we’ve had. Not sure if the aliens will let me take a whole table with me, though.
Beltrunner tells us the story of a man, in the wilds of space, just trying to do his thing while dealing with corporate greed and an unhappy ex-lover. This is a very human story set in an inhuman world. What do you think are the indelible and unchanging aspects of being human or of human relationships?
Holy cow. You’re not making this easy, are you? Part of me wants to be glib here, and say the most unchanging aspect of being human is change itself–it’s the kind of aphorism that sounds deep without actually needing to be deep. For being human, I’d say the most indelible and unchanging aspect of existence is fighting against inevitable defeat. Choosing to go into battle against unconquerable opponents and not retreating. As far as I know, we’re the only animal who knows it is mortal, and yet we go on. We build things, we have families, we fall in love, we lick the cookie dough covered spoon, even though ultimately we will one day stop breathing and die. We don’t look at death and say, “well, might as well lie down, open my mouth, and wait for the rain to drown me.” We get up and fight. What’s that line from Ulysses? “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Or, to bring it home with Cervantes, the inspiration for Beltrunner, in the musical adaptation of Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha: “to dream the impossible dream.” For human relationships, though, I’d answer perhaps a bit differently. Generosity. Giving. That’s what endures about relationships. Giving of yourself is the only way to renew oneself, I think. Give and give and give…you’ll keep regenerating and be able to give more. Take and you’ll run out of room to put everything you’ve taken.
What is your favorite (read) book and why?
My favorite book is one I recognize isn’t necessarily the best piece of literature ever crafted, or the deepest, or even one that has held up over time. I always go back to this one because when I first read it as an adolescent, I was transported. I felt like I really was in 12th century England–I could hear the trumpets sounding brave knights to battle in the tournament at Ashby, could see the brightly colored pennants and shields, all of that. I choose it as my favorite not because it’s the best book I ever read, but it was the book that first truly showed me the magic of reading. For that reason, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott will always be my first love.
What is the book you dream of writing and haven’t yet?
I dream of writing a book that does to its reader what Ivanhoe did to me. I dream of transporting a reader, of taking her on a journey and making an indelible mark on her. I don’t know what the story will be–in a sense, that doesn’t matter–but I do know I want to spread the magic of what fiction can do. I guess I’m bringing this all full circle–the idea of change and changing another person; the idea of fiction being a powerful force; the idea of attempting great things, even in the face of failure; the idea of transporting a reader. Is this hubris? Maybe. But I think writers need a touch of hubris in them, don’t they? Without that, without the idea that their words will mean something, will do something–what’s it all about? Good ol’ Bob Browning’s words come to mind here: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Find out more about Sean O’Brien
Webpage: Sean O’Brien