Writing, Traveling, And Thought Provoking Story Ideas With Arthur O'Keefe
Welcome back to another Community Spotlight! Today we have the extravagant chronicles of Arthur O'Keefe. There are so many insightful notes in conversation here and I hope you enjoy this article.
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Arthur Shattuck O'Keefe was born in New York and lives in Kanagawa, Japan. In his debut novel The Spirit Phone, occultist Aleister Crowley and inventor Nikola Tesla confront the enigma of Thomas Edison's device to communicate with the dead. The Spirit Phone was released by BHC Press in November 2022.
His short fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Manawaker Studio’s Flash Fiction Podcast, Ragazine, and The Stray Branch. He has written articles for Rain Taxi, PopMatters, The Japan Times, Japan Today, Kyoto Journal, and Metropolis. He is an associate professor of English at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo.
What sparked your interest for writing? How did you decide to write in the sub genres of The Spirit Phone including alternate history, sci-fi, and fantasy?
It’s hard to say if a single experience or event made me think, “I want to write!” I’d been deep into reading since I was five, and would make up original stories or scenarios in my head with characters I’d read about or seen on TV. I was quite the daydreamer, which could be exasperating to my teachers. I guess it was only a matter of time before I started writing. But despite my rather rich fantasy life, I didn’t make a sustained effort to get published until well into middle age, though I’d been writing stuff in notebooks on and off since my teens.
The genre/subgenre blend in The Spirit Phone was more of a result than a conscious plan. For example, rather than say, “I want to write a steampunk novel,” I decided that some anachronistic technology in my late Victorian setting was needed. That such a thing qualifies as steampunk was an afterthought. (That said, there isn’t any steam technology to speak of. One Goodreads reviewer has called The Spirit Phone “electropunk.”)
But I think the main reason for the subgenre mix is the premise: With the Edison spirit phone as my starting point, there was no choice but to combine elements of technology and the supernatural, because that’s what a spirit phone is. I also wanted to give the protagonists a mystery to solve, because the whole idea of such a device is a kind of enigma. Booklist calls The Spirit Phone a cosmic horror murder mystery, Locus Magazine calls it a historical fantasy, Nightmare Magazine calls it an occult mystery, and Manhattan Book Review calls it a thriller. I think all these descriptions fit, and I’m happy to have created something that can’t be pigeonholed.
As for my interest in speculative fiction generally, my older brother was into Poe, Lovecraft, Asimov, and so on, so his reading habits were an influence. (He also introduced me to the existence of Aleister Crowley and Nikola Tesla, whom I would eventually depict in The Spirit Phone.) And my mother always encouraged me to read. Not horror, fantasy, or sci-fi per se, but as far back as I can remember, she had books on tarot, astrology, UFOs, and other such topics. (I think there was a copy of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows lying around.) She never tried to push it on me or anything. It was always just there. Growing up in a household where all this was “normal” might have pulled me toward speculative fiction.
The first fictional work that really got me thinking about how things could be depicted “outside the box” was the novella Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott, first published in 1884. I read it when I was about 12. The premise is that there are living, intelligent beings who experience and perceive space only in two dimensions. The protagonist is a square (in the geometric rather than social sense) whose world is turned upside down when he encounters a three-dimensional being, a sphere. The concept that reality can be something other than what we take for granted really resonated with me.
Another book that affected me deeply, also around the age of 12, was Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. The idea of interviewing a vampire! And telling the story from the vampire’s perspective rather than the mortal perspective. The sheer originality just blew me away. It was definitely an inspiration.
What is the most intriguing, unique aspect of The Spirit Phone and how did you think of these/how did these ideas come about?
I’d long wanted to produce my own work of speculative fiction, and decided that a key element should be an especially unusual premise. Basically, I wanted to write a book that I would want to read if someone else had written it.
I’d been kicking around some ideas and one day–it was August 15, 2009–I was rereading my copy of Phantom Encounters, a volume of the Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown series. It includes a chapter on Thomas Edison’s idea to invent a device to contact the dead, which he spoke about in an interview with B.C. Forbes in 1920. It was later dubbed “the spirit phone” by the media, but apparently Edison himself never gave a name to this proposed invention, and there’s no known evidence he tried to build it. Anyway, I put away the book and at that moment it hit me: What if Edison had actually made a spirit phone, and what if it worked? That could be a novel. Right then and there I decided on the main characters: Nikola Tesla, Edison’s archrival and a genius inventor in his own right, and Aleister Crowley, the most famous occultist in modern history. I spent the next three weeks working out possible plot lines and additional characters. After a decade of on-and-off writing and research, I got it done.
As far as I know, this is the only novel that combines Edison, Tesla, Crowley, and Edison’s rumored spirit phone. I especially found the idea of getting Crowley and Tesla together intriguing, as they were such very different personalities, which I’ve tried to depict in the book. Crowley is hedonistic and cheeky, and loves teasing Tesla about his germophobia. Tesla is much more straightlaced, expressing his disapproval when Crowley starts flirting with a saloon barmaid even though they need to focus on their plan to break into Edison’s laboratory. (There’s no evidence that Crowley and Tesla ever met in real life.)
The late Victorian Era had an incongruous blend of earth-shattering developments in science and technology along with a proliferation of spiritual and religious movements such as spiritualism, millenarian groups, and occult societies. I think the idea of using an electrical device to contact the dead is the logical extension of such a trend. I could have set the book in 1920, the year Edison proclaimed his intention to build the spirit phone, but I wanted to place it within the milieu of pre-World War I optimism and complacency. The devastating effects of the spirit phone in the era of the Lost Generation would have been somewhat less of a shock.
How has writing in general shaped you as a person? How has this specific novel?
It’s made me more aware of what I can do if I set my mind to it, and that in creative endeavors, another pair of eyes is vital. Get those beta readers! Another American writer living in Japan, Patrick Parr, helped me greatly in this regard.
Near the end of 2017, I met Patrick for the first time at a year-end get-together in Roppongi for Japan Times contributing writers. His debut book, The Seminarian, a slice-of-life biography of Martin Luther King Jr., was to be released the following April, and he had also published a lot of short fiction. (Since then, he’s released One Week in America, an account of the 1968 Notre Dame University Literary Festival.)
I wasn’t confident that I could really write this book, and asked him for advice in 2018, when all I had produced was about 10,000 words and tons of notes.
In 2019, I sent him the (finally completed) first draft, and he wrote back saying that the dialogue was excessive and overwhelming, and the manuscript needed to be revamped. As soon as I read this, I realized he was absolutely right, and I had always known this, but hadn’t admitted it to myself. By telling me what I needed to know (instead of what I wanted to hear), he helped me realize my goal of completing The Spirit Phone. Tough love! I was really lucky to have his input.
As a writer, I had to be willing to hear this kind of feedback, and remind myself that the goal was to make the manuscript as good as it could be, not to massage my ego.
"Another important thing I’ve learned is that even beta reader feedback I don’t agree with is valuable, because it compels me to consider my decisions more carefully."
How has living in different countries and among different cultures impacted your creative endeavors?
Now that you mention it, having spent a long time in Japan has certainly influenced my writing (though not really in the case of The Spirit Phone).
I’ve published three short stories set in Japan. In one of them, “The Entropy Room,” a key element is a darker (though happily rare) aspect of commuting in Japan. There is a term particular to the Japanese language, jinshinjiko (人身事故), which literally translates as “human physical accident.” It’s a euphemism indicating someone jumped in front of a train to commit suicide, or fell by accident, or in rare cases was pushed. There’s no exact English equivalent, so the English notification always says something like, “Train delayed due to an accident.” The main character of “The Entropy Room” is a jinshinjiko casualty (though not a suicide) who has managed to cheat death by constructing an elaborate dreamworld duplicating the real world he lived in before being hit by the train. The inspiration for the story came from a drawing (included in the story) by my friend Andrew Jones, who produces quite amazing artwork. Similarly, in a flash fiction piece titled “Morning in Shinoyama Park” (based upon a real-life experience), I explore the topic of suicide, which is considered a particularly Japanese social issue. (My only published non-Japan-based short story so far is “A Spirited Conversation,” a sort of short fiction companion piece to The Spirit Phone.)
As for nonfiction. my book reviews for The Japan Times and Kyoto Journal have included pieces on English translations of Japanese fiction. In writing about the experiences of foreigners in Japan, I’ve interviewed Megha Wadhwa, who’s done groundbreaking research on the situation of Indian migrants in Tokyo; Matthew Allen, a Hollywood screenwriter from Australia who lives in Japan; and John Watkins, owner of Yokohama’s oldest English pub. (John and his pub served as models for Chapter 40 of The Spirit Phone.)
Favorite genre to read/write?
In writing fiction so far, I’m leaning toward the dark and fantastical, but that may change at some point.
As for reading, it’s impossible to pick a single favorite genre. I love reading science fiction, horror, and fantasy as well as literary fiction and the occasional espionage or detective novel. A really interesting historical fantasy novel I’ve read recently is The Peculiarities by David Liss, which is set in London in 1899 and includes Aleister Crowley as a supporting character. I think his depiction of Crowley is more historically based than mine. Another recently read novel I loved was The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West, based on the true story of William Jackson Crawford, an engineer in Belfast in the early 20th century who tried to scientifically prove the existence of the afterlife.
I also enjoy history and general nonfiction. The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox is one of my favorite works of history. An excellent nonfiction book I’m currently reading is The Mission by David W. Brown, which tells the story of efforts to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, in search of possible life. Biographies of Aleister Crowley by Lawrence Sutin, Tobias Churton, and Richard Kaczynski. Nikola Tesla biographies by Margaret Cheney and Marc J. Seifer. Empires of Lightby Jill Jonnes, a description of the “current war” over AC (Tesla/Westinghouse) versus DC (Edison), is truly excellent.
Top three favorite books?
I can’t choose! There are too many books I love for different reasons. Besides the books already mentioned, some favorites (not necessarily in order of preference) are The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway; The Divine Comedy by Dante; The Epic of Gilgamesh; 1984 by George Orwell; The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco; Different Seasons by Stephen King; The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson; The Difference Engine by Sterling & Gibson; Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series.
I actually can think of two specific favorites among short fiction. My favorite horror short story is “The Statement of Randolph Carter” by H.P. Lovecraft. My favorite purely literary short story is “The Pale Pink Roast” by Grace Paley.
Best time/space to write?
Early in the morning, about 4:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., in my writing room, which I also call The Entropy Room (which is the model for the room in my short story of the same name). However, I also tend to suddenly get ideas at random when I’m spacing out on the train, so I write those down and then mold them into shape later, at home.
On a visit to Paris in 2019, I went to a café that had been frequented by Hemingway in the 1920s. (I think it was La Closerie des Lilas.) So, of course, I wanted to write something there. I got out my notebook and tried to write. But I was so enamored of the fact that I was sitting in the same café as Hemingway that I couldn’t concentrate and wound up producing some random junk that’s now sitting in a box at home. Recalling this, I was reminded of an interview quote of Gene Wolfe’s I’d read. He said that if you’re determined to write, you can do so even if you’re sitting in the back of a pickup truck on a busy highway. So I guess the café in Paris is optional, and maybe even counterproductive if you’re sitting there thinking about it too much.
Links to check out more of Arthur O'Keefe:
Publisher’s book page for The Spirit Phone: https://www.bhcpress.com/Books_OKeefe_The_Spirit_Phone.html