Ryan O’Connell talks about his first novel, Embracing Disabled Artists – The Hollywood Reporter
Ryan O’Connell has a history of exploiting his personal life for the greater creative good.
His breakout sitcom Special, which ran for two seasons on Netflix and was nominated for four Emmy Awards, was based on his own journey as a gay disabled man coming to terms with his cerebral palsy. He played a version of himself in the lead role. Before O’Connell came to Los Angeles, when blogging could breed underage celebrity status, he wrote a wildly popular column for Thought Catalog about his love life as a young 20-something in New York City. York. Today he is releasing his first novel Just looking at it – a frothy, spicy story about a self-described “gay man in his thirties with an expensive haircut”. Elliot has cerebral palsy, lives in Los Angeles, and struggles with a long-term relationship that slowly turns into something between stale and mildly toxic and the psychological warfare that is a Hollywood writers room. Sitting in the manicured backyard of his Eastside Los Angeles home (where he and his partner, writer Jonathan Parks-Ramage, live among framed photos of O’Connell’s literary heroes Joan Didion and Nora Ephron), O’Connell describes the book as “emotionally” autobiographical, but insists it is not a veiled memoir. “Derived from Special, I could see how you were reading the guideline of this book and you were like, it starts again! he says. “But as far as the story goes, it’s all fiction.”
Fans of O’Connell’s very particular writing style will find a familiar biting humor in the novel – Elliot tells in the first person and takes no prisoners in his running commentary. From his colleague in the writers room of the Formula Network sitcom he’s reluctantly working on: “Cindy was fifty years old and dressed like a receptionist who had recently lost her moral center.” From a distant friend who chooses to live in Santa Monica: “The first sign of unease.” From his sex worker, River:[He] was objectively handsome, as if James Franco fucked Dave Franco and gave birth to a less problematic Franco.
O’Connell learned early in his career that his voice was one of his greatest professional assets. His work at Thought Catalog landed him an agent and a book deal (his 2015 memoir i am special later served as source material for the series), and within weeks of moving to Los Angeles, he landed a spot writing for MTV Annoying, a show that relied heavily on slang and childish banter. “I realized then that for better or for worse, my voice was so fucking specific that there were, like, three [existing] projects that would make sense to work on,” he says. “I was never going to be able to jump on new girl. The only way to pursue a career was to make things myself.
Special was undoubtedly personal and entirely original, but O’Connell admits that the group project factors required to make a TV show (and serve as showrunner) took away from the pure self-expression that comes from writing and directing. solitary creation – this pure expression is Quel Just looking at it suggested the author. When the pandemic lockdown started, stopping the production of Specialthe second season of, he decided to start writing 1,000 words a day. It was both an artistic exercise and a coping mechanism: “I don’t like to feel out of control. He continues with a laugh, adding, “If you want to tell the whole liberal arts school about it, it’s probably about being born into a body that I can’t control.” He had no intention of writing an entire book, but Elliot’s story flew out of him, the narrative rhythms of the novel coming easily. “I wrote mini cliffhangers,” he says, “to give me a problem to solve the next day.” The first draft was done in three months. He is aware of the scarcity there – his partner, Parks-Ramage wrote his own first novel (Yes Dad) over several years, a more typical rhythm – and describes the sensations that invade her during the writing process as “witches”.
With the Literary Exorcism complete, O’Connell needed to find a book agent. He was determined to find gay representation, so he reached out to author and friend Melissa Broder (2021’s milk fed) for help—”I’m a TV bimbo, she’s a literary diva” he says—and eventually signed on with a publisher who was happy to release the book without blunting the edges. The novel is unfiltered in its descriptions of Elliot’s sex life (the opening line is “My boyfriend Gus has a nice penis” and the realities of inhabiting a disabled body (entering field work of the studio leaves him “soaked in sweat, looking like Reese Witherspoon in Savage”) and it was imperative for the author that it be so. He was also convinced that he should be allowed to remain a beach reading. “Usually when a marginalized person talks about their experience, it’s literary with a capital L,” he says. “But the reality is I’m a Nancy Meyers bitch. I am a commercial fiction.
Just looking at it will be released the same week queer as folk reboot Premiers on Peacock – O’Connell starred and wrote for the show – and the film adaptation is already in the works. He is undeniably successful, but warns that he still feels professional malaise. Part of that is because his upbringing in Ventura, Calif., away from the excesses of Los Angeles, adds another notch to his underdog belt. As a child, he didn’t even expect to attend a liberal arts college; a settlement from the hospital where he was born funded his tuition and supplemented his meager salary from his early days in New York. “Culture is rigged that way,” he says. “This money has opened up a whole new world to me.” But he’s also candid about how difficult he still is to get the kind of content he likes greened by an industry that’s slow to diversify. He recently lost a role in a massive studio comedy over what he describes as concerns about the role being considered offensive if played by someone with a disability: “They cast it in the awakening of the disability, but Hollywood is still the toxic bitch it always was.” And the success of Special did not result in an expansion of disabled content as he thought. “I thought there would be more incoming calls,” he says.
Publishing, too, has been slower to expand the range of authors’ voices and topics than its critics hoped. The industry relies heavily on compositions, and books that are the first of their kind can scare away publishers and marketers. When the publishers transmitted Just looking at itthey cited its similarity to Special as a reason. O’Connell takes umbrage at this reasoning, citing prolific filmmakers whose entire body of work consists of variations on the same theme: Sofia Coppola and her documentation of the malaise of the rich, or Woody he) and his neurotic. New York Stories. “And, I’m sorry and I love it, but Sally Rooney literally wrote the same book multiple times,” he says. “Nobody questions it. We’re okay with artists drawing again and again from the same well as long as it’s a certain type of artist.
He bristles at the idea that there’s only room for so many handicapped queer narratives, and notes that his worst fear about his own success is that it might come at the expense of another person’s. . His goal is to help push the company — on screen and on the page — to greenlight the work of more artists with disabilities. And he swears never to stop taking up space. “I spent so many years being emotionally low that I just finished doing it,” he says. “I’m going to have the confidence of Rob Schneider in the 90s.”