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Scott O'Connor Interview: "Half World: A Novel," Exploring MKUltra and the Covert Universe of CIA Mind Control Operations

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Image attributed to Simon & Schuster

Scott O'Connor - Half World: A Novel

Born in Syracuse, New York, author Scott O’Connor is the son of an air-traffic controller and a preschool teacher. An alum of the State University of New York (SUNY Brockport), O’Connor is co-founder of GO Studios, a post-production and motion graphics design firm. Among Wolves, his 2004 novella, about a boy who believes his parents have been replaced by impostors, was praised by the Los Angeles Times book review for its “crisp take-no-prisoners style.”

Untouchable, his first novel, was published in 2011 and won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. His latest novel, Half World, is released by Simon & Schuster on February 18, 2014.

“Since I started researching this about ten years ago, the Internet has obviously become our main source of a lot of things, and you can go down the rabbit hole of MKUltra pretty quickly online. Of course, you don’t know what’s true … or speculation. Is it psychosis? Is it truths? Again, as a novelist, that was something that was really appealing to me because I wasn’t beholding to the facts in a way that a journalist or historian would be.”

Half World: A Novel is inspired by Project MKUltra, a real-life clandestine CIA operation that began in the 1950s where unwitting American citizens were subjected to insidious drug and mind-control experiments. O’Connor has crafted a riveting, tour de force literary thriller that vividly images the devastating emotional legacy of such a program through the eyes of one of its more unexpected victims.

O’Connor lives with his family in Los Angeles.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Scott, tell me about your writing career, and what has led up to Half World.

Scott O’Connor: About ten years ago, I self published a novella called Among Wolves. I designed and distributed and did everything. I was working as a designer at the time and was really interested in how that was done, to create a book from beginning to end. It was a great experience. I met a lot of great people in the small press world, many bookstore owners, buyers and people who work in bookstores.

At the time, I was working on a novel, and when I finished that, I decided to go a more traditional route because I didn’t feel like I was quite equipped to actually publish a novel on my own. I learned a lot from publishing the novella, and part of what I learned was how much I didn’t know and how much other people did know about the actual publishing world. Untouchable was picked up by Tyrus Books, an independent press, and it was released in the spring of 2011. Half World is my third book, my second novel.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You pitched the idea to Simon & Schuster?

Scott O’Connor: Half World was a complete manuscript when we sent it to publishers. Simon & Schuster was one of the publishers that was interested in it, and we ended up going with them for a number of reasons, the main one being the editor, Millicent Bennett, because I felt she really understood the book and has been instrumental in the revision process and getting us to the finished product ready for release.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you decide to write about Project MKUltra which involved the CIA conducting mind control experiments in the 1950s?

Scott O’Connor: I can’t remember exactly when the interest began. I think I had been interested for a long time in intelligence history in the early days of the American intelligence community and the beginning of the CIA after World War II. I was doing a lot of reading on that. I’m not sure I had anything specific in mind that I wanted to write about, but it was just one of those little hints you get every once in a while, and you think it might be an area to explore.

In one of the books I was reading which was an overview of the history of the CIA, there was a very small section on early failed operations, embarrassing operations, because in the early days of the CIA, there were not many rules. It was very uncharted territory. The US had never really had an intelligence service except for the OSS in World War II, so there weren’t a lot of guidelines. They were sort of trying anything to see what they could do to get ahead in the Cold War basically.

This book had a small section on embarrassing projects they had tried and failed and one of them which was listed in just a few lines was MKUltra which was the CIA’s mind control project. I just thought, “What? There was a mind control experimental project?” As a writer and novelist, you go, “Hang on a second! What’s this about?”

I started to look into it a little more deeply, and that’s when I found the details of how one of the projects involved apartments in San Francisco and New York where they would hire prostitutes to bring men back and then drug these guys with things including LSD which in the mid 50s was a very unknown drug. It was not a street drug yet.

This sense of recklessness in the face of national security really resonated because at the time I was doing this research, the Iraq War had been going on for a couple of years and Abu Ghraib, so there was a lot of talk about the enhanced interrogation techniques, torture and CIA black sites. It felt very current. It felt like the beginning of something we are still talking about. Now we’re talking about the NSA and eavesdropping, so it still feels very current.

I see it as almost a prehistory of many things we’re still concerned with. But the idea of this underworld of trying to control people’s minds, seeing if you could find a way to turn one person into another person was fascinating to me, and there was so much of the history in the documentation of the project that’s gone. It was destroyed. So there are just these huge gaps. We really don’t know all that much about what actually happened so as a fiction writer, that’s a perfect place to start for a novel.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some people even say that Project MKUltra “never happened” because so many of the documents were destroyed around the time of Watergate.

Scott O’Connor: Right. There was a sense in the early 70s that things were changing because Watergate was just beginning in the summer of ’72 and public opinion about the Vietnam War had really taken a turn. It was turning all throughout the late 60s, and by the early 70s, it had really taken a turn and things like the Pentagon Papers were coming out. There was a sense in government that the press especially was no longer their friend.

There was definitely a period of American history through the middle of the 20th century where the press in many ways was carrying water for the government. There were many things that went on that were never disclosed, and there was a generational change with people like David Halberstam and Seymour Hersh who thought their jobs as reporters were to keep the government honest. That was a big change. There was a panic in a lot of the secret sectors of government, and one of the things that happened probably because of that was the destruction of these documents.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you able to conduct research from the remaining documents?

Scott O’Connor: There are actually an incredible amount of documents left. For a secret agency, the CIA had a terrible addiction to paperwork. Everything was written down, copied and cc’d. A memorandum that went through the halls of the CIA headquarters in different offices was signed off on by fifteen or twenty people. So there’s a decent amount. The overall amount that existed was probably huge because in the 50s and 60s, they documented everything. What’s left is probably a very small percentage, and some of it continues to come out. Some of it has even come out since I’ve written the book.

I filed a freedom of information request early on in my research and was turned down, but other journalists and historians have filed successful ones. There have been a couple of books written. You can read the congressional transcripts, which are pretty fascinating when this was actually brought before Congress in the mid 70s. There was a whole hearing devoted to it including some documentary evidence about the safe houses in San Francisco and New York.

Since I started researching this about ten years ago, the Internet has obviously become our main source of a lot of things, and you can go down the rabbit hole of MKUltra pretty quickly online. Of course, you don’t know what’s true … or speculation. Is it psychosis? Is it truths? Again, as a novelist, that was something that was really appealing to me because I wasn’t beholding to the facts in a way that a journalist or historian would be.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that there were deaths associated with this project. In particular, Frank Olson, a biological warfare specialist who was actually drugged with LSD by the CIA, and nine days later he was dead. Some speculate suicide, but others allege it was an assassination.

Scott O’Connor: Yes. Frank Olson is a very famous case. That’s one of the first sort of publicly known parts of this whole program. People have been writing about Olson for decades, and I think his family was very involved. He was actually a CIA employee at the time. None of that factored into my novel, but it’s probably the best-known real word case when it comes down to Project MKUltra.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your protagonist and CIA analyst Henry March really didn’t have the stomach for the whole mind control and torture techniques.

Scott O’Connor: No, and when I’m working on a book, I’m focused primarily on the characters. To me, the question for somebody like Henry March is, “How does somebody go from a person who might be your next door neighbor or your colleague who is by most accounts a ‘normal’ guy to being somebody like this?” At the time the Abu Ghraib photos were coming out, one of the things I’d wonder while looking at those was how could anyone who was involved in the torture imagine themselves being in that terrible situation a year before the photos were taken.

People get into terrible situations because of war, the threat of war or a conflict, so I was interested in the question of how you get from a normal, suburban American life to being in a room with someone and torturing them for information. It just can’t come down to someone being a psychopath because these agencies are not run by psychopaths. How do we get from somebody who would consider themselves a person who would never do something like that to someone who actually finds themselves in that situation?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It does make you wonder how many people did commit suicide or attempted to disappear because they just couldn’t take it any longer.

Scott O’Connor: Sure.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): While Henry March dealt with this nightmare that was his day job, his daughter was living in fear daily of atomic disaster, and his son, Thomas, had his own set of problems. Was there a particular reason you decided to make Henry’s son autistic?

Scott O’Connor: When I was writing him, I never thought of him as autistic, which I know sounds strange, but I really just thought of him as Thomas, and this was his personality. This was the way he interacted or didn’t interact with the world. It wasn’t until later drafts of the book when I then started researching how a child with these behaviors would’ve been dealt with in the mid 50s. It was a very different world than it is now.

The word “autism” was used very frequently back then, but it was used to encompass almost any kind of emotional or mental disturbance or disorder or set of behaviors that were not considered “normal.” He would’ve been most definitely diagnosed as autistic, but it would’ve been an almost meaningless diagnosis. The treatment for it or the way we have learned to deal with it and adapt to it in children and adults was just not in place. People were basically institutionalized.

Once I started looking into that, then Ginnie’s character and Thomas’ character really clicked in their relationship. She was going to try to do anything to hold onto her son in the face of a medical establishment that, at the time, would be telling her not only was it her fault that he was like that because mothers were usually blamed for lack of love to the child, but that they wanted to take him. Once I started looking into that and their relationship, those two characters really clicked for me.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I found the book to be just as much about family relationships as mind control and torture.

Scott O’Connor: Absolutely. I see it very much as a novel about a family that’s torn apart by choices that are made mostly by the father of the family. Many of the parts of the book that veer into spy novel or science fiction or thriller are only ways of exploring the characters. They are ways of exploring this family and the people who make up the family. The family and the relationships between them and what these things that happened did to them were always first and foremost.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, it’s a great read. Did you have an early interest in writing, Scott?

Scott O’Connor: I was interested, but I don’t think I quite understood for a long time that someone could be a writer (laughs). I was always a big reader and always sort of tinkered around as a kid with telling stories, but I didn’t know any writers. We didn’t know any writers growing up, and the idea of where books came from was a little abstract. Even when I got older and understood that there were people that wrote these things, it was just so far from my world that it wasn’t something I thought, “I’m going to do this.”

I wanted to be an actor growing up which was also very far from my world. But I think when you see actors on television and film, you feel that you know them, so it feels like it could be something you could do. That’s what I pursued. I studied acting and worked as an actor throughout my young adulthood in my 20s, but I was getting more and more into writing at that time, and writing was taking up more and more of my time. So in my late 20s when I published Among Wolves was really when I made the switch from one to the other.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is GO Studios?

Scott O’Connor: It’s a postproduction and design studio, which means we basically do the work after things are filmed. It could be a documentary, a commercial or any number of things, and after it’s actually filmed, we take over and do the editing, the graphic design and the sound work.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think that Half World would make a great film. Any interest?

Scott O’Connor: There has been some early interest. We’re still seeing how that shakes out, and what we’d be interested in as well. It’s pretty early now even though we’ve spoken to some people about it. It’s always an intriguing possibility to think how someone else would tell this story in a different medium.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I see Tom Hanks playing Henry March.

Scott O’Connor: Oh, that’s interesting. Well, I guess you’re not worried about the budget for casting. You go right to the top (laughs). It’s funny because I live in LA, and there’s some sort of tenuous connection to that industry just to live here, from my other work and from the interest the book has generated. But I have trouble picturing anybody to play Henry at this point. I’m too close to it. I see them as the characters in the book, so I can’t make that jump yet to actual human beings that may be playing them. To me, Henry March is Henry March. Maybe over time, that will change a little bit.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you working on another book?

Scott O’Connor: I’m working on some short stories. I’ve just started another novel, but it’s in the very early stages, so it’s hard to really say what it might become or develop over time.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who are your favorite authors?

Scott O’Connor: I would say Joan Didion’s writing in both her fiction and nonfiction, Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Flannery O’Connor. Those are some of the bedrock favorites of mine. Like any reader, it’s constantly evolving.

Somebody will introduce you to a writer you may not have really read before, and then you read one of their novels or a collection of stories and you go back and try to fill in everything you’ve missed. I think those are the ones I tend to return to over and over, but new favorites are always being added which is one of the joys of reading.

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