This past Tuesday, Sept. 17, Dan O’Brien, an accomplished playwright and poet, read from his works. The event was followed by a book signing and Q&A session.
Held at the Southern Utah Museum of Art, this book reading was one out of 120 events being held throughout the state of Utah for the Utah Humanities Book Festival.
Danielle Dubrasky, SUU’s Associate Professor of English and the Director of the Tanner Center, introduced O’Brien. When reading his list of accomplishments, she paused and said, “Are you keeping track of the awards? This is incredibly impressive.”
O’Brien has taught playwriting at Princeton University and received an MFA in Playwriting & Fiction from Brown University. His play, “The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage,” was the winner of the 2018 PEN America Award in Drama, and was nominated for six Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle prizes.
During the majority of the reading, O’Brien read out of his debut collection “War Reporter,” and his play, “The Body of the American,” which are based off of Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter Paul Watson. View one of his poems here.
The remainder of the event was a Q&A session, in which O’Brien answered several of the audience’s burning questions.
Question: What some words that are on your “don’t use” list?
O’Brien: Stephen King once said, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” However, with that being said, as an Irishman, I need adverbs. The other word that comes to mind is, “suddenly,” but there are exceptions to that as well.
Question: How do you make what you write colorful and entertaining, while still keeping the integrity and truth of a piece intact?
O’Brien: I’ve learned to transcribe when I’m being told a story and then find bits and pieces that suggest something of a poem to me. This is going to sound corny, but the concept of empathy and understanding was crucial to the project with Paul.
Question: Because you work so closely with things like violence, how do you shake the emotion and weight off and decide, like, “I’m going to go make a sandwich now?”
O’Brien: Working on these projects has made it harder to go back and write about sunsets. . . I’ve been asked to write a piece addressing the Sandy Hook shooting and it’s taken me time. I think art should be difficult. . . and it is.
Question: Have you always been drawn to expressing yourself in poetry and plays your entire creative career? Or do you kind of attribute it to circumstance?
O’Brien: When I was younger I just wanted to be a writer. I was raised in an Irish American family and so I grew up in a house that talked and talked. Monologue was constant. I think that’s part of it, but I think we all have our own natural accommodation to certain genres.
For more information on O’Brien and for a list of his awards and accomplishments, visit his biography here.
Story by: Elizabeth Armstrong
Photo by: Utah Humanities