O'neill, Susan 1947-
O'NEILL, Susan 1947-
Born October 19, 1947, in Fort Wayne, IN; daughter of Fred (a tool-and-die maker) and Mary (a homemaker; maiden name, Voirol) Kramer; married R. Paul O'Neill (a health-care executive), August 29, 1970; children: Kym, Kramer, Kel. Education: Attended Holy Cross School of Nursing (South Bend, IN), 1968; Attended University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1971-72; University of Maine, Portland, A.A. (liberal arts), 1976; University of Maine at Orono, B.A. (journalism and advertising), 1984. Politics: "Mixed." Religion: Lapsed Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Biking, hiking, singing, community theatre, travel.
Fiction writer. U.S. Peace Corps, volunteer in Venezuela, 1973-74; freelance writer, 1974—; Memorial Hall Public Library, Andover, MA, community service librarian, 1988; Northern Essex Community College, Lawrence, MA, teacher in nursing lab, 1992-95. Volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, Hospice, historical societies and soup kitchens. George E. P. Mountcastle Lecturer at Gilman School, Baltimore, MD, 2001. Wartime service: U.S. Army Nurse Corps, first lieutenant, 1968-70; served in Viet Nam.
American Nurses Association, American Organization of Operating Room Nurses, Massachusetts Registered Nurses Association.
Various volunteer awards.
Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2001.
Author of column and articles for Andover Townsman, 1985-88. Editor, Vestal Review (e-zine), 2000-02. Contributor to Boston Magazine.
WORK IN PROGRESS:
A novel about family crises.
Susan O'Neill draws on her personal memories in working as a perioperative nurse at several U.S. Army field hospitals during the Vietnam War in a collection of interlinking stories published as Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam. The title of the collection reflects a catchphrase often used in hospitals as a way to get past the grim reality of war, and O'Neill's stories reflect that grimness, while also digging deep to find humor and joy as well. She also provides a glimpse into the war from a woman's perspective, and shows how the few women on the front lines represented a mixture of home, sexual gratification, and salvation to those men who had fallen. As School Library Journal contributor Carol DeAngelo explained, the author also "reminds readers that while soldiers suffered the guilt of killing, the nurses felt the pangs of survivor's guilt." From an overworked nurse's efforts to capture a pet monkey on the loose in a field hospital to a young soldier trying to escape a few hours courtesy of hospital anesthesia, her stories are peopled by what Los Angeles Times reviewer Mark Rozzo described as a "cast of eccentrics," the overall effect of the book "as entertaining as it is harrowing." DeAngelo praised Don't Mean Nothing as a "fascinating glimpse of the Vietnam War from a very different perspective," while a Publishers Weekly contributor noted in particular O'Neill's "refreshing maturity and profound sense of compassion." Her stories, which are related with "eyewitness immediacy" according to Rozzo, unfold to expose "startling glimpses of absurdity and transcendence."
O'Neill told CA: "Writing is a most agreeable job: I play with language, invent imaginary friends, and indulge in pompous philosophical navel-gazing, and there's no heavy lifting. I've worked in my earlier life as a performer—singer, storyteller, ham actress. Shine a spotlight on me, and I dance (figuratively speaking; literal dancing is not one of my talents). Writing, at least published writing, is performance. I love to read aloud and especially enjoy classroom contact with kids, teens, college-aged adults; it's great fun. Every year, I visit a grade school class here in town during "Read-Aloud" week; I usually read Edgar Allen Poe's "The Telltale Heart." Poe was the love of my life when I was in junior high school. I had to spend a couple of weeks in bed with pneumonia back then, and I wiled away the boredom of recovery with a collection of his stories in one hand and a dictionary in the other.
"Dont' Mean Nothing was a strange success story. I'd considered writing about my 'hitch' in Viet Nam for some time, but there are gaps and spaces in my memory—if I were an oyster, these would probably be my pearls, painful incidents from which I'd insulated myself. So I couldn't write a nonfiction account; It wouldn't have been fair to my subject.
"One day, I picked up Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I was pulled in by the writing, but it was the format—connected short stories, almost a novel-instories—that really sang to me. I began to write individual stories around things and people I'd experienced during the war, and connect them with recurring characters and settings.
"I got an agent, and he didn't sell the book. Discouraged, I forgot about it and took off for a return to Viet Nam on bike with my husband—we'd met during my original hitch and were celebrating our thirtieth wedding anniversary. When I got back, I wrote a nonfiction travel piece for Boston Magazine. For some reason, Nat Sobel, in New York, read it. I sent him my much-rejected book and he helped me trim it and sharpen it, then sold it. I consider him one of the Wonders of the Modern World.
"Not one of these stories has been published on its own, even by magazines that pay in copies. The only reason I knew they might work—and didn't stick them in a trunk in the attic with all those things we're storing for our kids—was the response they received on my virtual writer's site, Francis Ford Coppola's marvelous Zoetrope.com. I owe my peers on that site a lot, and I'm embarrassed that I forgot to thank them in my book.
"I'll get it right next time.…"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Association of Operating-Room Nurses Journal, April, 2003, Maureen A. Bidwell, review of Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam, p. 854.
Booklist, September 1, 2001, Marlene Chamberlain, review of Don't Mean Nothing, p. 193.
Boston Magazine, November, 2001, Welling Savo, review of Don't Mean Nothing, p. 153.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 13, 2002, Mark Rozzo, review of Don't Mean Nothing, p. 10.
Publishers Weekly, August 6, 2001, Judith Rosen, "Keeping It Short," p. 52; October 8, 2001, review of Don't Mean Nothing, p. 40.
School Library Journal, April, 2002, Carol DeAngelo, review of Don't Mean Nothing, p. 186.*