LitMag: This will be your first publication. What was it like when you heard the news that you won the contest?
O’Toole: To be honest, I was shocked. I had just been rejected from all the M.F.A. programs I applied to, and I was feeling stuck. The news that I was accepted for publication validated me as a writer, and when I found out about winning the award, I thought I was going to pass out. It was the best news that came at just the right time in my life because I was questioning my decision to pursue writing. I am looking forward to applying to more graduate programs with a better resume in a year or two. This award and publication will help with that, which was my first thought when I received the news.
LitMag: What is your day job? Does it influence your writing?
O’Toole: I graduated from Elmhurst College with a B.A. in English last May, and I have been working at a local coffee shop since then. The job is nice because its rhythm allows me to think about writing while I’m making drinks, and the people I meet there give me new ideas for characters or stories. It’s the perfect job if you like people-watching. I like the freedom of a simple day job for now, as it frees up my afternoons and evenings for writing. I also do some freelance social media management on the side, and that is something where I can use my writing and storytelling skills to make money.
LitMag: You’ve said that you are haunted by a deep desire to travel, but you mostly write. Is writing your preferred mode of travel? Or is travel something you can’t yet do, and is writing a substitute or a rival?
O’Toole: Traveling and writing are harmonious in my life. Some of my favorite places to go are Ireland and Poland to visit my family. My parents immigrated to the U.S. in the ’90s, and visiting my ancestral homes and seeing my family gives me context for my life and goals. I also love traveling to connect with nature. After a nice long hike, there’s nothing like sitting near a glacial lake or on top of a mountain and journaling. Mostly, travel and writing go hand in hand. Through college, I worked and saved to be able to travel (and pay off school, of course), so I could bring new textures to my writing. I try to capture a sense of wonder in my life; travel helps me find it, and writing helps me hold onto it.
LitMag: Your short story “Abditory,” which won our contest, is about an orphaned child who is asked by her aunt to lie about magical powers she doesn’t have. The story also has elements of magical realism, but the story would clearly work in a powerful way without it. It’s such an interesting use of magical realism to contrast with the magic that is absent from your protagonist’s life. What brought you to this story, and to its structure and style?
O’Toole: This story actually started with the first line being very true to my life. All the doorknobs in my house are broken. From there, I let the story lead the way. I’m not sure where the milk aspect came from, but magical realism was something I had always wanted to experiment with, so I used it to compound apprehension and the feeling of being stuck. I wanted the magical aspects to further the sense of alienation the protagonist experiences.
LitMag: We were struck by the precision, elegance, and wonder of your sentences. Tell us about your writing habits. When do you write? How long do you usually work on a story before you know it’s done?
O’Toole: I try to write every day. It’s the advice everyone gives, and it’s the advice that works best. Since I work early mornings at a coffee shop, I spend my afternoons and evenings writing. I’m a bit of an insomniac, so a lot of that goes late into the night, especially if an idea carries me away. When it comes to short stories, I write the first draft in one or two sittings before taking a day to review what I came up with. After completing a first draft, I add and expand on ideas I notice in the text while removing unnecessary excess. Poetry and learning about how to write poetry influenced me, especially Richard Hugo’s idea of a “triggering subject” leading to a found meaning. I apply that to my fiction and let the story find its own way. If I am too in my head when I write, the meaning feels forced or lost, so I keep planning to the bare minimum, just enough to keep me on track. It’s all about a balance.
LitMag: Your writing career is just beginning. What are your hopes, your next moves?
O’Toole: I will definitely be applying to grad school again within the next few years, but I learned my lesson the first time around; I have to focus on getting some work out into the world, first. I want to complete a better draft of my novel this year and write more short stories for now, but eventually, I will pursue a masters in creative writing.
LitMag: You mentioned Samwise Gamgee as a model to you as a writer. Tell us the qualities in him that you see, or would like to see, in yourself.
O’Toole: What attracts me most to Sam as a character is his optimistic view of people and the world, connecting back to that sense of wonder that helps me write. Sam accompanies Frodo on this dangerous journey out of love, and he is the one always pointing to the beauty in the world when Frodo seems to have lost all hope. My hope is that I can capture the beauty of life’s simple moments and share that with readers as Sam does with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
LitMag: What books are on your nightstand?
O’Toole: A friend lent me American Gods by Neil Gaiman, but I am also reading a collection of Van Gogh’s letters and the latest issue of Poetry magazine.
LitMag: What are you’re working on now?
O’Toole: I’m working on the final chapters of my novel, which explores the fragility of identity. I am also collecting short stories.
Submit to this year’s contest.