Susan O’Neill is a writer, editor, RN, Army and Peace Corps veteran, and old woman.
She is not an “old lady,” because of her propensity for unlady-like language. Her first book was banned from a display table in the book store at Fort Sam Houston, Texas—even though she graduated from basic training at that very fort 33 years before, and the book was a fiction collection loosely based on her service in Army hospitals in Viet Nam.
It was banned because a retired Lady General opened it, and gasped, “That Word.”
And she was just reading the Intro.
Don’t Mean Nothing, in addition to being the first collection of short fiction by a Viet Nam nurse vet, thus might’ve become the first book sold from under a display table.
At a reading in her old Indiana hometown, her own mother told the modest crowd, quite seriously, that they shouldn’t buy the book. “It’s got That Word in it,” she said.
Again, with That Word…
Don’t Mean Nothing was published in hard cover by Ballantine Books in 2001, and—unlike at Fort Sam Houston—it was placed on top the front “New Fiction” tables in bookstores all over the country. Unfortunately, it came out the month after the 9/11 attacks, a time when there wasn’t much of a market for a darkly humorous and unpatriotic collection of short stories about the war we so famously lost.
The reviews were positive, though. Except for a snarky, un-signed Kirkus piece that called it “M.A.S.H., with lots more sex and cursing.” O’Neill made the Kirkus tagline into a T-shirt.
After a month of so-so sales, the book moved back to the stacks to make room for new New Fiction, and there it languished, except when the author’s daughter Kym crept into stores and spirited copies back to the front table.
But hark—Ballantine sold the rights to Black Swan Books in Great Britain. Which jetted her off to London for a round of prime radio interviews—just as the Queen Mum died, inspiring all of England to rivet their eyes to the grand royal funeral on the telly.
Ballantine also sold paperback rights to UMass Press, who used it for academic purposes.
Eventually, all sales ground to a halt, and even her daughter Kym couldn’t keep Don’t Mean Nothing on real-life bookshelves. So a few years ago, the author took back her rights from the book’s three publishers and struck out for virtual shelves. Ballantine had cut two flabby stories from their first edition; O’Neill put them on a strict diet and exercise regimen, and when they were thoroughly sculpted, toned, and polished, she added them back to the collection, and turned it over to Serving House Books (New Jersey), which re-published it in paperback and ebook forms.
If you buy any version of Don’t Mean Nothing—and she hopes you will—she would love it to be the current Serving House Books edition or the ebook. Not only do they include all the stories, but she might get a few bucks from your purchase. Used books don’t profit their authors, but they profit Amazon, which reciprocates by making it easier to find its secondary sellers than the new editions—so if you’re looking for the new one there, you’ll find it here.
In 2013, O’Neill published another book, Calling New Delhi for Free, (Peace Corps Writers Books). It’s a collection of brief, mostly humorous essays, a fun project: she convinced folks to write bad blurbs for the back cover (Shout-out to Jane Borden, Dave Barry, Agent Supreme Nat Sobel, and Siri), and hired her son Kramer, a street photographer living in Paris, to design the book and shoot the cover art, which is to die for. It is also in paperback or on Kindle.
Much of this book came from a blog she once maintained on the Peace Corps Writers site. She, her husband Paul, and Kym—then 2 years old—volunteered with the Peace Corps Family Program in Venezuela from 1973 to 1974, when the country was South America’s longest-standing continuous democracy.
The blog, like the old Venezuela, is now gone, but there are odds and ends of O’Neill’s writing on the organization’s new site that you can access here. You’ll find an article (with a long intro by someone else) about being a “Non-Matrix Spouse,” her job description in Venezuela. And a link that will lead you to a strange short story, Pink.
O’Neill—being an old woman—has done many things in her life. There was the nursing thing: her strangest gig was an old mental hospital on a hill in Northampton, MA. There’s a long essay about it here.
She also worked for a community college in Eastern MA, teaching nursing students how to dole out pills and injections, and give enemas to plastic butts (plastic butts, she would add, that were made in the USA).
She’s done music and storytelling with kids, sang in a Maine cover band in classic venues like high school gyms and the Elks Club, once got fired from a library job, and spent 16 years earning a BA in Journalism/Advertising. She’s reported for weekly newspapers, written humor columns, sat on not-for-profit boards (always the Board Secretary), written entirely too many press releases for whatever organizations her three kids joined, headed the all-volunteer building of a town playground, cleaned up after Hurricane Sandy, and volunteered with Hospice. She has also been a baby-cuddler in a hospital Newborn ICU.
She lives with her husband Paul in Brooklyn, around the corner from Kym, and across the world from Kramer (Paris) and her younger son Kel (Amsterdam). Her kids have given her five amazing grandchildren. She recently retired from the Flash Fiction magazine Vestal Review, where she was co-editor to its creator Mark Budman for 20 years. Maybe someday she’ll publish her novel; meanwhile she writes, edits, and mentors.
And sometimes she publishes a bio in the fucking third person.