Michael D. O’Brien has been working as an iconographer, painter, and writer for nearly fifty years. He is the popular author of over two dozen books, including several best-selling novels such as Father Elijah, Elijah in Jerusalem, The Father’s Tale, Eclipse of the Sun, Sophia House, Theophilos, and Island of the World, all published by Ignatius Press. His novels have now been published in fourteen languages and have been widely reviewed in both secular and religious media in North America and Europe.
His essays on faith and culture have appeared in international journals including Communio, Catholic Dossier, Inside the Vatican, The Chesterton Review, Catholic World Report, and others. He has worked as a professional artist since 1970 and has held more than 40 exhibits across North America. Since 1976 he has painted religious imagery exclusively, with works ranging from liturgical commissions to visual reflections on the meaning of the human person. His paintings hang in churches, monasteries, universities, community collections and private collections throughout the world.
Michael O’Brien lives near Combermere, Ontario. He and his wife Sheila have six children and ten grandchildren. He recently spoke with CWR about his work as a novelist, reflecting on the vocation of the novelist, the creative process, influences, and inspiration.
CWR: You are best known for your novels—historic, futuristic and dystopian. Why did you choose to write fiction?
Michael O’Brien: In a sense, I never chose it. I recall one day in the mid 1970s when I was painting happily in my studio, and into my mind there blossomed a fictional story, complete with near visual scenes and rich dialogue. This phenomenon totally surprised me.
As the days and weeks went on, the story just grew and grew in my imagination, so I decided to write it down, mainly to have done with it so I could get back to what I then considered to be my real work as a painter. Nineteen years later it was published as A Cry of Stone. I’ve never studied literature or creative writing, never sat down and said to myself: “Now, I’m going to write a novel.” Writing just seems to flow from the stream of my vocation as a visual artist.
CWR: In regard to each novel, how long is it from conception through to publication?
O’Brien: With the twelve novels published to date, the moment of conception to birth has varied widely with each. Typically, however, it takes me about a year to write a novel, short and long alike. I focus entirely on writing during that period, just letting it pour out. After that comes a process of stringent self-editing, and also asking perceptive friends, family, and other readers to read the manuscript and give me feedback. I pay close attention to their responses, because writers tend to be somewhat subjective about our beloved babies, and I’m no exception. I ponder suggestions carefully, and make the changes that I think are right. Then I submit the manuscript to my publisher, Ignatius Press, and another more professional stage of editing begins—more an editing dialogue. Here again, I ponder every query and suggestion, because their objective eyes have a long track record of helping me to become a better writer.
With my more recent novels the length from conception to publication is generally about two years. Some of the earlier novels took many years—The Father’s Tale, for example, which I began in 1998 was published in 2011. I was never completely satisfied with earlier drafts and rewrote it several times. It’s one of my best books, I feel. I would say that my novel Island of the World is the best of them all, and in this case the period of conception to publication was about four years, which is odd when you consider the massive amount of research involved. But there was a powerful grace accompanying me throughout its writing.
CWR: Given the scale of any novel as a sustained piece of writing, do you ever feel overwhelmed?
O’Brien: No. It’s always a plunge into a mysterious and often surprising adventure. It’s always hard work—but it’s joyful hard work.
CWR: In general, how much time is spent on research compared to the actual writing of a book?
O’Brien: Again, it really depends on how complex and how new the territory is to me. For example, Island of the World’s Yugoslavian history or the first century A.D. world of Theophilos, with each of these novels, there was at least two years of research for the one-year of solid writing.
CWR: When and where do you write? Is there a set routine?
O’Brien: I have a studio room in our home where I go to work every day, five days a week, six when I can get away with it. I write about 8 hours per day, always in a sense of timelessness. If I wasn’t called to supper, it would be twelve to fourteen hours per day.
CWR: Where and when do ideas for the next project come to you?
O’Brien: Very often in prayer. Interestingly, some of my best books suddenly appeared in my imagination in embryonic form, or as a core “word” or theme, a logos if you will, while I was praying before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. And sometimes this has happened when I was not in any way thinking about what I might write next. In summation, much is basic human imagination bubbling away, much is good ol’ labour, and much is grace.
CWR: Have you ever suffered writer’s block?
O’Brien: Yes, twice during the past forty years, if I recall correctly. It was very disturbing to me at the time, but in retrospect I understand how essential that experience was. The longest period was about three weeks. I went to my studio every day, and prayed, read Scripture, allowed myself to feel my own personal emptiness, and to keep asking for the graces needed for completion of the works in question. This helped me understand the value of interior silence and the crucial role of grace. It taught me to wait, rather than rushing into text my endless opinions and imaginings. Then when the time was right the flow resumed and took a far better form.
CWR: How much, if any, does other media—music, film, art— feed your creative process?
O’Brien: There is very little electronic media in the life of my family. No cell phone, no Internet, etc. My wife and I don’t own a television, though we watch a rented film now and then on my small computer screen. Music is sometimes a meditative stimulant, helping to open the creative flow when I am pondering a new novel—almost exclusively classical music. However, when I’m writing, silence is the “medium” that’s most fruitful for me.
CWR: Who are your favourite authors?
O’Brien: I’m very fond of Tolkien, Dante, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn.
CWR: What books would you recommend to writers?
O’Brien: If you mean in terms of the writer’s art and vocation, I strongly recommend Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners and Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, both of which have been very helpful to me in understanding the vocation as well as the processes involved.
CWR: What do you understand as a writer’s vocation?
O’Brien: As with all Christian art, the writer’s calling is to make visible what is invisible, but in such a way that the reader experiences wonder and reverence for Being itself. This means telling a story in which the mysterious movements of divine providence in human life become more comprehensible, and that the great drama of existence in which we are all immersed is seen with new eyes—fraught with dangers and with sublime beauty. Whether one’s work is explicitly or implicitly Christian in themes, the writer’s fidelity to ultimate reality—to Truth—enlarges the reader’s universe.
CWR: What has writing and being a novelist taught you?
O’Brien: The long discipline of being an artist in Christ throughout more than forty-five years has taught me to see that creativity is not my possession. It’s a co-creative grace—grace and human nature working together to create “words” that give life to others. And, that in order for one’s art to be living words, prayer is absolutely fundamental.