Brendan O’Brien, visiting writer and Truman State University alumnus, could not write about people, landscapes or events by sitting down at his computer. For his novels, an important part of his research involved observing people, such as how they used their body language and participating in conversations himself.
“To me, that’s what stories are all about,” O’Brien said. “You have to create that link between you and the character that could be real.”
While he was a student at Truman State University, O’Brien took a nonfiction class with English professor Monica Barron. In that class, he wrote a book proposal and Barron told him he just had to write the book one chapter at a time. Five years later, O’Brien published “Trace: The Hidden Cost of What We Buy” and is now returning to Truman to give an author talk and reading.
O’Brien’s latest book centered on looking at different resources and people who were using those resources, such as getting raw material to build a cellphone. He originally wanted to write a nonfiction book inspired by his travels to Ghana during his college years, but he soon realized he didn’t have money or time to travel, so he instead researched and observed the world.
The majority of the narrative in Trace takes place on a bus, similar to O’Brien’s own experiences while he was a daily commuter in Minneapolis. He would take the bus to work 45 minutes each way, so he had a lot of time to write and observe passing cars, buildings and fellow passengers. He said this novel fuses nonfiction and fiction because he was inspired by his own life experiences, but he fictionalized the characters to follow the theme. O’Brien said his book is about the growing detachment in cities and the world.
“We are constantly surrounded by people and constantly connected through phones, internet and social media,” O’Brien said. “But I feel like we are more cut off than we have been ever before.”
O’Brien said this book was difficult for him to write because it was constantly on his mind. He said he would go out to eat and he would find himself thinking about where the food came from, how the workers were treated and who prepared the food. He said those thoughts made him feel incredibly guilty and overwhelmed. He said the challenge for him was to translate those thoughts onto the page, and he sought to capture stories of individuals that people could empathize with. He said the book changed the way he interacted with people, especially when exchanging currency for goods.
O’Brien decided to self-publish his books. He said he did not want to go through Amazon or another massive corporation. He found a route through NoiseTrade because it was smaller, and he said they were easier to work with. With a lot of big publishing companies, it falls on the authors to get books on shelves. He said by the time he finished each of his books, he did not want to worry about marketing them. He just wanted the words out there for people to read them, so self-publishing and making them into e-books was the best route for him.
Aside from writing, O’Brien has a job that involves working with nature. He has lived in various parts of the country, including Missouri, Minnesota, Maryland and California. In 2017, he was part of a fire crew where he worked on fire suppression and monitoring. In 2018, he was part of a trails crew in Montana where he mostly focused on making trails for people so they could hike there and bring horses and mules through.
O’Brien wanted to work in nature ever since college, when he spent one spring break hiking the Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with other students from Truman. He said being among people in remote areas without any cell service changed him. He was connected to the group, they worked hard together and saw what they were accomplishing each day.
“That stayed with me, and I think ever since then I really wanted to get out there and hike and be in natural settings,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien advises writers to not put too much pressure on themselves and keep writing. If writers struggle to come up with new ideas, O’Brien said they should change their environment. He said writers should write what they see and put it down on paper. Then they can go back themselves and decide what is worthwhile, and a lot of the time, they’ll look back and be pretty surprised at what they wrote.
O’Brien will do an author talk at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 3 in Baldwin Hall 114 where he will discuss self-publishing and writing after college. At 7 p.m. the same day, O’Brien will read selections from “Out of the Depths” and “Trace: The Hidden Cost of What We Buy” in the Baldwin Hall Little Theater, books that focus on relationships between people, corporations and nature.