CIA Mind Control Experiments Shatter O’Connor’s Half World
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Scott O’Connor,
When Henry March’s career with the CIA in Washington takes a nosedive in the mid-1950s, he’s sent to San Francisco to set up a new program. In a specialized apartment, unsuspecting johns are drugged and brainwashed until they no longer even know who they are. Almost twenty years later, the next generation is thrown into the deadly game resulting from the aftermath of those experiments.
|“As a novelist, you start to think, There’s a story here. That led me down the rabbit hole.” |
AUTHORLINK: How did you come up with the idea for the story?
O’CONNOR: I was interested in the origins of the American intelligence community, and started reading about the early days of the CIA. One of the books mentioned a number of failed early operations, one being the Agency’s mind-control program, MK-ULTRA. One of ULTRA’s subprojects involved Agency assets hiring prostitutes to lure men back to secret safe houses, where the men would be surreptitiously drugged. As a novelist, you start to think, There’s a story here. That led me down the rabbit hole.
AUTHORLINK: Did you plan all along to skip from the ‘50s to the ‘70s, to the next generation, or how did that come about?
O’CONNOR: I’d always imagined the book would have two sections, with a gap of “lost years” in between. The characters in the second part are trying to stitch those eras back together and uncover what was lost. Also, I experienced a really compelling sense of disorientation while researching the book. Most of the original documents are gone, so there are these holes in the history, these mysteries of what happened, and I wanted to recreate that feeling in the novel.
AUTHORLINK: What did you do to research the CIA’s experimentation with mind control? Are there some records that still exist?
O’CONNOR: Some records still exist, though many were destroyed in the early 1970s. I filed an unsuccessful Freedom of Information request, but was able to read widely from various other sources. There’s very compelling and bizarre Congressional testimony, as well as some documentary evidence, notes and logs of expenditures. But the book is fiction, so all of the historical evidence is just a springboard. I’m not tied to the facts in the way a historian or journalist is.
AUTHORLINK: You also had to come up with the flavor of two decades – the ‘50s and the ‘70s – what kind of research did you do for that?
O’CONNOR: I visited libraries and archives, looked at a lot of photographs and film, read widely about those times, as well as immersing myself in some of the culture from the periods: books, movies, music. And then I talked to people, tried to jog their memories of those years. These are fascinating periods. We often think of the 50s as a safer, blander time, but there was a real undercurrent of unrest and rebellion that led into the next decade. And then the early 70s were like the hangover from the 60s: drugged out, disillusioned, war weary. Many of the debts of the 50s were coming due.
|“I have to find the rhythm of the book. While revising, I’ll start to get a sense of when it’s time for a new voice. . .”|
AUTHORLINK: You have about seven point-of-view characters, some with only a brief time in their heads. How did you work out when to switch characters at the forefront?
O’CONNOR: I have to find the rhythm of the book. While revising, I’ll start to get a sense of when it’s time for a new voice, or when to return to an established voice. The question is always, What’s the most interesting way to tell the story right now? I knew that I wanted a larger cast of characters than in Untouchable, and so the challenge became who should take center stage when.
AUTHORLINK: How was it to go from publishing your novella, then a novel, and now the third book?
O’CONNOR: I self-published my first book, Among Wolves; Untouchable was published by an independent press; and Half World is being published by Simon & Schuster. It’s been a good education in different facets of publishing. I’ve also been very fortunate—working in all three ways has been very rewarding. The industry is obviously in the midst of great, ongoing change, but in some ways I think writers have more options than ever before. I have no idea what the publishing landscape will look like five years from now—or even two years from now—but I’m glad that I’ve been able to work with great people in all areas of that landscape.
AUTHORLINK: How did the writing process change?
O’CONNOR: Each book is different, and each book has its own process. The hard part is that process reveals itself to you over time, while you’re writing. You just have to settle in and work, and wait to see it. Among Wolves was written relatively quickly, so I thought the experience in writing Untouchable would be similar. It wasn’t. It took about a year to write the first draft, and then three or four slow years of revising. So then I thought Half World would follow that pattern and was wrong again. Half World’s first draft took two very slow years, and then the revisions sped everything back up.
AUTHORLINK: The effort and time to get it published?
O’CONNOR: Both novels took about four or five years to write. Untouchable spent almost a year getting turned down until Ben Leroy at Tyrus Books read it. Half World found a publisher faster, as by that point I’d established something of a track record. Then it was a matter of feeling a connection with Millicent Bennett at Simon & Schuster, knowing that she understood the book, and had ideas about where it still needed to go.
|“I had no idea if Untouchable would ever be published.”|
AUTHORLINK: The confidence that it would be published?
O’CONNOR: I had no idea if Untouchable would ever be published. In some ways, I was just happy to have finished the book. It existed, whether it was published or not. That gave me the confidence to start Half World.
AUTHORLINK: What did you learn along the way that you wished you’d known at the start?
O’CONNOR: Patience. There’s no single, foolproof way to write a book. They all have their own rules. I had to learn, and am still learning, to be patient while I figure those rules out.
|About Scott O’Connor:|
O’Connor is from Syracuse, New York, the son of an air traffic controller and pre-school teacher. He lives with his family in Los Angeles. He thinks he’s just started his next novel, but he’s trying to take his own advice about being patient.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.