Conspiracy theory: the power of ordinary people
Patrick O'Leary often wanders around his office at a large Michigan advertising firm humming to himself. His co-workers might think he's a bit weird, but if they read his books they would discover that while humming (somewhat tunefully) he's probably considering parallel worlds, our place in the universe and the hard choices we sometimes must make in our daily lives.
In his third science fiction novel, The Impossible Bird, O'Leary has crafted a page-turning story about "alien invasion, resurrection and brotherly love." But he also uses the book to delve into serious and timely issues. When we talked to O'Leary recently at the World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, he had this to say about the question at the heart of his new novel: "It comes down to this for me individuals facing facts and making a difference."Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to talk about The Impossible Bird without giving away the huge secrets at the heart of the novel. There are conspiracies within conspiracies, so that what starts off as a relatively simple chase novel quickly becomes a multi-level tale where reality may not be all it's cracked up to be. The novel begins in 1962 when two brothers witness a Roswell-type event. We follow the brothers through their divergent lives: one goes on to a successful career making commercials, while the other becomes a college professor. Having lost their parents at an early age, the brothers were very close as children, but now they've grown apart. How and why they are brought back together is only the beginning of this exciting and thought-provoking book.
O'Leary began the novel in 1995 with one line that "moved and haunted" him. It was to be the last line of the book: "I'm watching my brother's heart. I'm watching my brother's beating heart." Although this image sustained him through the "first 50 drafts," in the end he did not include it in the book. "In hindsight," said O'Leary, "I see it was a controlling metaphor," and that the brothers' relationship was "the focus of the story." After studying journalism in college, O'Leary began to publish poetry in literary magazines. He later published a couple of short stories and then made the decision to write a novel. At the time he didn't realize what a major commitment this was: his first novel, The Gift, took 22 years to write, his next, Door Number Three, took seven, and The Impossible Bird took six. His first two novels were well received and, after years of slogging away on his own, O'Leary suddenly found himself receiving validation and acclaim from science fiction readers and writers. For The Impossible Bird, O'Leary says he used his experience in advertising to consider how a small group of people might go about trying to secretly control the public's perception of events. Before I can ask how much behind-the-scenes work at controlling society goes on at advertising agencies, O'Leary says his job led him to conclude that "it's nearly impossible to get 12 competent and intelligent people to agree on and implement anything much less keep it a secret. But it is such a comfort to believe someone is in charge, someone has the answers." O'Leary's novels, despite their twists into alternate realities, conspiracies and alien invasions, come down to one thing, "a personal struggle in each of our lives for consciousness, for truth."Therefore in The Impossible Bird, reality and the fate of the players are "essentially in the hands of two ordinary guys stuck in an extraordinary plot. Their choices are messy and hurtful and well-meant." It is O'Leary's belief in ordinary people making the right choices in difficult situations that continue to make his books so appealing.
Gavin Grant lives in Brooklyn, where he writes and publishes speculative fiction.