O'Connell, Nicholas 1957–

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O'CONNELL, Nicholas 1957–


Born March 6, 1957, in Seattle, WA; son of Nicholas (a lawyer) and Marie (a city clerk); married Lisa Sowder (a plastic surgeon), June 11, 1994; children: Daniel, Nicholas, Marie. Ethnicity: "American." Education: Amherst College, B.A., 1980; University of Washington, Seattle, M.F.A., 1985, Ph.D., 1996. Politics: 'Moderate." Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: mountaineering, wine making, travel.


Home—Seattle, WA. Agent—Carol Mann, Carol Mann Literary Agency, Inc., 55 5th Ave., New York, NY 10003. E-mail[email protected]


Whidbey News-Times, Oak Harbor, WA, reporter, 1980-81; Ellensburg Daily Record, Ellensburg, WA, reporter, 1981-82; Fishing and Hunting News, Seattle, WA, editor, 1982-94; University of Washington, Seattle, WA, instructor, 1987—. Writers Workshop (campus-based and online creative writing program), founder, 2001.


Authors Guild, Authors Guild of America, National Association of Scholars, Association of Literature and Environment.


Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, 1988, and Washington State Governor's Award, 1988, both for At the Field's End: Interviews with Twenty Pacific Northwest Writers.


At the Field's End: Interviews with Twenty Pacific Northwest Writers, Madrona (Seattle, WA), 1987, revised edition published as At the Field's End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1998.

Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers, Mountaineers (Seattle, WA), 1993.

On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 2003.

Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers has been translated and published in Japan, England, Italy, Canada, Poland, and the Czech Republic.


Author Nicholas O'Connell first published his At the Field's End: Interviews with Twenty Pacific Northwest Writers in 1987. In the expanded version, published in 1998, he added two more, Denise Levertov and John Haines, updated the biographical information, and added a new preface. The original twenty include authors Raymond Carver, Barry Lopez, Charles Johnson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ivan Doig, Tom Robbins, James Mitsui, Norman Maclean, James Welch, Gary Snyder, Tess Gallagher, A.B. Guthrie, and poets David Wagoner and William Stafford. O'Connell was a graduate student when he conducted these interviews, asking the interviewees how they practiced their craft. He discovered the many paths to becoming a successful writer and was inspired to begin his own writing career. O'Connell provides a biography and list of awards with each interview.

Each of these writers revealed to O'Connell that the Northwest had a significant effect on their work. A Booklist reviewer wrote that O'Connell "gives his subjects free reign to muse on matters of technique, inspiration, influences, and the significance of place." Many of the writers paid tribute to teachers like John Gardner and Theodore Roethke, who taught in the creative writing program at the University of Washington. They credit Roethke with showing them how to integrate landscape into their work. Landscape is particularly important in the work of Barry Lopez, the first writer to appear in the book, and Gary Snyder, the last. In his preface O'Connell notes that Northwest writers have access to the resources of the folklore and cultures of native peoples to whom nature was an integral part of life. O'Connell includes a few lines from Roethke's poem "The Far Field" in his inscription preceding the text. Other subjects touched on in the interviews are eastern publishing and eastern religions in the Northwest.

Among the anecdotes are eighty-four-year-old Norman Maclean's (And a River Runs Through It) comment that he is not able to fly fish like he used to do. Maclean was interviewed by O'Connell in his Montana cabin. Steven Weisenburger wrote in Modern Fiction Studies that this interview is, for him, "the sparkling gem of this collection." Weisenburger called Maclean "crotchety, delightfully wise, and proof positive that an aged man is no paltry thing." D.A. Hecker said in Western American Literature that "to scholars, the collection adds direct commentary on the nature of the writings and genesis of ideas, a likely source of information to help build a criticism and history of the literature of the Pacific Northwest."

In his second interview book, Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers, O'Connell talks with legendary climbers about their climbs and the psychology of climbing. He interviewed climbers of all ages, from Riccardo Cassin to Wolfgang Gullich, of all specialties, from rock to ice to high altitude. Beyond Risk includes interviews with Hillary, Bonnington, Harding, Robbins, Messner, Scott, Hill, and Kurtyka. Each describes the spiritual experience that transcends the physical.

O'Connell once told CA: "The Northwest region has always been a major source of inspiration for my work. The landscape, people, and beginnings of a distinctive culture continue to fascinate me. Even if I'm moving towards other subjects and places in my writing, the Northwest will remain a rich and inexhaustible source of inspiration, my home place."

More recently he added: "My primary motivation for writing is that I see it as my vocation, my way of doing good works in the world. I see writing as a calling, as something more than just a skill, art, or pastime. As a Catholic I see this in a religious sense, in that when you're doing your best work, it becomes a kind of prayer. Beyond this, I actually like to write. I like to play around with language. I like to find just the right word for something. I like to build superstructures of words, characters, plots. Even though this requires a lot of time and energy, I find it very satisfying.

"My work is especially influenced by personal experience. I do my best writing about subjects I know deeply, where I have much material to work with. Mountain climbing is one subject; wine is another. I'm also influenced by other writers, especially Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, Barry Lopez, Flannery O'Connor, and William Shakespeare.

"My writing process usually starts with an idea. I don't simply start writing. I like to plan my stories and books. I play around with the idea, jotting it down, adding to it, shaping it. If it continues to look promising, I start writing about it. This might take the form of a query letter I send to a publisher, or it may take the form of an early draft. It depends on how immediately salable the ideas looks.

"Then I often write part of a draft, see how it feels, and if I like it I continue. The next step is to write an outline. For a shorter story, I do this simply by scribbling a few lines. For a book I write a formal outline, trying to suggest the push and pull of the book, the conflict and resolution, the larger arc of the story.

"Once I have this in place, I go to work with confidence, knowing I'm more or less on the right track. I will write a chapter at a time, turning out a fairly polished rough draft. This I send through my writing group, get some criticism, and then take that advice to the next chapter. I continue with this process until I have an entire book.

"Then I read the book in its entirety, seeing its pace, strengths and weaknesses. With the whole book now in mind, I can go back and do a more thorough, useful second draft, and third, until the manuscript is clean enough to show to an editor or agent.

"I choose subjects that resonate with me and are new. I want to write something that's not been done before, or at least not done in the way I have in mind. Every book or story should offer something fresh and surprising.

"I'm writing a lot more narratives [lately]. I'm also writing a lot more fiction, especially novels. This is a very satisfying direction for me, and one that much of my nonfiction has helped prepare me for. I like the freedom of fiction writing, the ability to invent, though I'd never give up writing nonfiction. It gives me an excuse to get out of the house and find out about the world, which was one of the things that brought me to writing in the first place."



Booklist, November 15, 1987, review of At the Field's End: Interviews with Twenty Pacific Northwest Writers, p. 533.

BookWatch, January, 1988, review of At the Field's End, p. 3.

Modern Fiction Studies, winter, 1988, Steven Weisenburger, review of At the Field's End, p. 660.

Western American Literature, summer, 1988, D.A. Hecker, review of At the Field's End, pp. 176-177.


Writers Workshop Web site,http://www.thewritersworkshop.net/ (November 5, 2006).

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