2007-03-30 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Rockaway Writer O'Callaghan Featured At Upcoming Literary Arts Festival
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Local Rockaway author Thomas O'Callaghan describes his twelve-year effort to take his first novel, a police procedural cum thriller, Bone Thief (Kensington Books), from conception to completion as an odyssey of exploration. "After I finished reading my twelfth 87th Precinct novel," says O'Callaghan "I thought hey, I could do that. So, on a gloomy, rain soaked Frday afternoon I began writing what became my first published novel. That was back in 1993!" O'Callaghan vividly recalls his initial encounters with a typewriter in the days of white-out and ribbons and how his background in sales helped him "deal with something that new, idealistic, hopeful and naive first-time novelists like I was rarely plan on: Rejection."

And he recalls, almost ruefully, the way he wrestled with the cost of copying his precious manuscript when it was finally done. "I once read that a very famous author mailed an original manuscript to his editor and . . . you guessed it. It got lost in the mail. The author hadn't kept a copy so the novel went unpublished."

To avoid this fate, O'Callaghan visited his local copy center, only to be flummoxed by the proprietor's first question: "color or black and white?" Says O'Callaghan: "Now I was puzzled. Would it actually look better in color? In the end I opted for black and white. It was my first book, my baby, but I wasn't Rockefeller. I went for 8 cents a copied page, on heavy weight, bright white, and hoped for the best." And so O'Callaghan began the second part of his odyssey, finding a publisher for his book, the tale of a duel of wits between a tired New York City police detective named John Driscoll and a relentless and particularly brutal serial killer.

Of course finding a publisher in today's world means finding an agent first, since few publishers take unsolicited submissions anymore - there are just too many would-be writers out there competing for their attention and the publishing business is, finally, just that: a business. Scouring the listings for an agent, O'Callaghan notes that he sometimes got lucky and found prospective agents willing to look at his work. Then, he recounts, "You sprinkle some holy water on a box, cram your manuscript inside, and hand it over to FedEx for an overnight delivery and sit by the phone and wait and wait . . . and wait."

O'Callaghan's experiences aren't unique though in some ways they're less onerous than others' stories. Still, he notes that he re-wrote his first novel numerous times to please different people he encountered along the pathway to publication. In doing so, he acknowledges that he made his book better than it was. Nor does he regret the process since his publisher is now set to bring out his second novel, The Screaming Room in April, with three more sequels on the way.

Bone Thief , his first, sold more than 500 copies on Beach 129 Street alone, when it first came out, thanks to the efforts of a local stationery store, Sammy's. The eponymous Sammy, the store's owner, is enthusiastic about O'Callaghan's books and is eagerly awaiting the next one. "People in the neighborhood snapped up copies of the first," he says. "I went through boxes and boxes of them and finally stopped counting."

Will he carry the new one? "Of course," Sammy assures me. "A local writer in this community? There's no question." Although it's hard to get numbers on book sales, a check of Bone Thief's Amazon.com "page" reveals a very respectable sales ranking of over 200,000 and The Screaming Room , which isn't even out yet, is already showing advance orders that give it an Amazon rank of over 500,000.

Who does O'Callaghan count among his influences? "I read and was fascinated by Thomas Harris, Ed McBain, Lawrence Block, and Michael Connelly," he tells me. "Harris's The Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs (both made into films) were especially compelling. And I really enjoy McBain's work, particularly his 87th Precinct series. The one book that influenced me most, though, was probably Helter Skelter which depicted the carnage of Charles Manson and his cult. It's the one that got me interested in writing about these kinds of criminals."

O'Callaghan is effusive about the benefits of writing in a place like Rockaway: "I think the small town atmosphere here helps. I'm lucky enough to own a house with an open porch and, although I've spent many an hour in a variety of Manhattan Starbucks, typing away on my laptop, most of my writing's been done while seated in a wicker chair on that porch. When I do get writer's block, I take a walk along the beach or the boardwalk to break the spell. While I hope to someday retire to a small town where the Ace Hardware guy doesn't know what rock salt is, snow falling on a beach community can set a mean mood."

Did all the rejections get him down? "Staples has this device called a shredder," he grins. What about his subject matter? How can he write about the horrors of serial murder? "I'm a lector at my parish church," he confides. "The little old ladies can't fathom how someone with a choir boy face like mine, and the ability to recite Scripture, can think of some of the things I put in my books. People don't understand that fiction has to compel, it's not about prettying the world up. I just hope I don't give any real psychos any ideas. For most readers, though, I'm giving them an avenue of escape. An emotional roller coaster that they've elected to ride by plopping down the $6.99."

O'Callaghan is a member of both the Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers associations, and, of course, he's a Rockaway native. Foreign rights to Bone Thief have already been sold and the book will soon be available in four foreign languages. The Screaming Room is also set to be translated and released in Germany. O'Callaghan will be one of the featured authors at the upcoming Rockaway Music and Arts Council's "Literary Arts Festival" on April 22 in Ft. Tilden, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. He'll be appearing on a panel dedicated to suspense fiction, along with horror writer Sarah V. Langan ( The Keeper from HarperTorch), espionage writer Jay Lillie ( Havana Passage from Ivy House) and thriller writer Jonathon Linn ( Dadah Means Death from Xlibris). rockirreg@aol.com

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