The Men Behind the Mirror: An Interview with Scott O’Connor
Words By Dani Hedlund
Henry is a man divided. At home, he’s Henry March, loving husband and father, sensitive photographer, lover of poetry. He sits on the edge of his daughter’s bed, stroking her hair as she falls asleep. He holds his son tight, as his autism triggers another outburst, determined to keep his boy safe, to anchor him to a world he doesn’t understand. Henry March loves and is loved in return.
When he steps into his car and drives over the bridge from Oakland to San Francisco, Henry March disappears.
Henry Gladwell sits in a hidden room, behind a one-sided mirror, watching. Once an esteemed CIA operative, his mentor’s betrayal of their country has cast a shadow of doubt over his career. He’s been shipped off to the other side of the country to do the work no one wants to do or acknowledge. Through that mirror, he watches prostitutes inject johns with the CIA’s new experiment: LSD. Taking notes, taking photos, Henry Gladwell records the progress of the mental manipulation, the brainwashing, the torture. It’s not for him to disagree—though surely he does—he must tow the company line, prove he is not his disgraced mentor.
Every day Gladwell and March alternate control of Henry’s identity, but he doesn’t know how long he can keep switching back. He begins to lose sight of the line between his real self and the other. He sits in his car at night, repeating his name, his real name, over and over again, praying that when he goes inside, March will be the only face in the mirror.
Half World, Scott O’Connor’s new novel, explores this struggle, investigating why good men do awful deeds, what motivations prove more valuable than morality, and how masks, if worn too long, will become faces. With the dark and hazy setting of the birth of the CIA, O’Connor writes not from the obvious perspective of the gumshoe thriller. Instead, he employs the same intimate, quiet writing that made him famous, delving into the minds and hearts of the men behind the mirror.
It is with great admiration that Tethered by Letters recommends this phenomenal novel. Spanning three decades, Half World paints a vivid and unforgettable portrait of a nation on the cusp of losing its identity. As the proliferation of LSD fuels the wide-spread counterculture of the 60’s and 70’s, America leans ever towards chaos. In this thrilling landscape, we watch as Henry Gladwell’s choices seep out of that hidden room, plaguing Henry March’s legacy. The men behind the mirror are forced to look at their own reflections, to look at each other, to realize they created the monsters that now threaten to destroy their country.
O’Connor on Half World
In my three years of conducting and writing interviews for Tethered by Letters, this was the first time I had the pleasure of interviewing an author for the second time. O’Connor and I began by catching up on the last few years, discussing the incredible critical reception to his first novel, Untouchable. Given this success, there was a great deal of pressure for O’Connor’s to follow it up with a new novel just as brilliant. Luckily, as he explained, he’d had an idea for the novel before he even began writing Untouchable:
“Years ago, I was interested in doing something about the early days of the CIA,” he said, “The US had never had an intelligence community before…[and] I was just really interested in how that came about, how a country that was supposedly based on openness and democracy created an agency that was based on the opposite of those things.”
In the midst of his research, O’Connor found mentions of several failed experiments. “Back then,” he explained, “the CIA was very free-wheeling. There was a sense of just throwing anything at the wall and kind of seeing what stuck. They didn’t have a lot of training. They were inventing it as they went along. And as a result, many of the early projects had almost comical failures.” One of these early projects was called MKUltra, a mind control test the CIA conducted in the sixties. “It was just a couple of sentences,” O’Connor said, “but I was like, ‘wait, what do you mean? There was some mind-control experimentation?’ and then, once you open that can of worms, you’re down the rabbit hole of LSD research and brainwashing and the Manchurian Candidate.”
Realizing that this setting was “too good to pass up,” O’Connor began extensive research for a new novel. However, he soon discovered he was researching far more than he was writing. As a result, he decided to refocus on his craft, and he started working on other stories, including his bestselling novel, Untouchable.
However, O’Connor never gave up on this original book. Five years later, he decided to go back. “By that time, I’d already written a novel and I’d learned a lot about what that meant and what that took,” he said, “so a lot of my ideas from five or six years before were no longer good.” He’d originally conceptualized Half World as “this incredibly epic 800-page, fictional history of the CIA, with 50, 60, 70 main characters that had this giant wide-screen feel.” Although O’Connor did several sketches and wrote some small sections, he confessed that he lacked the discipline to construct the story properly.
“After I had written Untouchable,” he explained, “I knew my next book wasn’t going to be this big ‘winds of war’ sort of thing. It was going to be a smaller book.” He was still interested in the original characters—the agents conducting these experiments—but he realized the scope of the plot wouldn’t work. That’s why it was more than just helpful to write Untouchable in the interim—it was necessary. “It really taught me so much about writing and characters,” he explained, “and for me, how much I needed to follow these characters so deeply. Looking at a story like Half World from a macro level wasn’t going to work. I need to move from a macro to a micro level. So when I went back over the research and the sketches I had done, I knew I had to start all over.”
The primary way O’Connor made sure he was focusing on the micro level was to let the characters drive the story. “I really needed to be inside those characters,” O’Connor explained, “even if it took place over twenty years, even if there were three or four or even five main characters (depending on whose voice we are hearing at the time). Even in moments that felt like I was writing my version of a spy novel or a science fiction novel, I wanted to see if I could pull off that same level of intimacy in those different genres.”
This proved difficult, as Half World is considerably more plot driven than Untouchable. Determined to make these two factors coexist—the plot and deep engagement with the characters—O’Connor had to be exceptionally in tune with the balance. “It is challenging,” he explained, “but you can feel when the balance is off. You can feel when you’re spending too much time in a character’s head, and suddenly you have ten or twenty or thirty pages of their voice but nothings really happens, which is great when you are trying to get to know the character, but you are ultimately going to use four paragraphs of those ten pages.
“And I knew there were times when I was pushing the plot too hard, when I wanted things to happen for reasons that had nothing to do with the characters. I’d write these long passages where things were happening and I’d have to go back and see that I was forcing these people to do these things. So you’re right, there’s a balance there. And it’s just a matter of pressing the gas, pressing the brake, pressing the gas, pressing the brake. You’re going back and forth until it feels right. The things that are happening in the book are happening because the characters are taking actions that are logical to them.”
As we continued to discuss problems that arose during the writing process, O’Connor confessed that the largest issue he had with Half World had nothing to do with his writing abilities. On the contrary, he grew concerned that he was writing an “ugly book.”
“Untouchable had just come out and I was not feeling good about how this book was going. I was really kind of despairing about whether or not I would finish it…It just felt like it was a book about people doing terrible things to each other. I wondered if this was something I really wanted to bring into the world.”
When his angst about the book reached its peak, he decided that he needed to take a break. O’Connor and his family decided to take a trip to Chicago, escaping both his work and the city that had become the novel’s setting. “When we left,” he explained, “I really thought I was leaving Half World behind, I was gonna give up on it, at that point I’d been writing it for over two years and I was just sick of it. I didn’t see the point in it. And I remember we were taking the train from O’Hare into the city and I hadn’t even brought a notebook with me, I wasn’t going to do any writing, it was like I was giving up on it entirely.” As he sat on the train, he suddenly had an image of Thomas March, his main character’s young son.
“I just remember sitting on the train and immediately I could picture Thomas as an adult (which I had never picture before) riding a train in Chicago and trying to help people that he found who needed help on the train. I remember kind of panicking, asking my wife for something to write on, and she handed me a stack of post-it notes, and I was just scribbling, and by the time we’d come back to Los Angeles from Chicago (about a week later) I had that scene written. It really saved the book for me. I felt like now this was worth writing.”
When O’Connor returned to Los Angeles, he carried this seed of hope with him in to the novel, expanding on the more positive elements. “Having that in there really changed everything. So when I revised the book, I sort of revised it around that. And it started to make sense.”
O’Connor was even able to use the “ugliness” in the novel to reflect back on itself, revealing how truly unromantic violence is in the real world. “I wanted the violence to be awful and awkward and unexpected,” he said, “There is always a trap when you start writing about spies where this is this Jason Bourn sort of thing you can fall into. I mean, I love those movies too, but that wasn’t what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about people who didn’t know what to do, who were put into situations and they don’t have the toolbox. I wanted keep the whole book as unromantic and sensational as possible. We glorify violence so much in our culture that it loses its impact. And if you’ve ever been around real violence, it’s completely different. If you’ve ever been around a gun going off, it’s completely different. It sounds different, it feels different, it changes the world of a moment. And that’s what I wanted for the book.”
Half World. Despite his initial trepidation, he combined this darker, history-rich plot with powerful torrents of hope, creating the same intimacy that made us all fall in love with Untouchable.
Excerpt from Half World
They were a small unit at the start of the war, a handpicked group of officers working under Arthur Weir, who was only five years Henry’s senior but had already established a near-mystical reputation as a genius in counterintelligence. The idea of an organized espionage unit was new to the military, so the group had been sent to London to learn tradecraft from the experts, before being dispatched to Rome to disrupt Mussolini’s homeland apparatus and encourage the small but committed underground.
Henry had felt at home in that world immediately. He was surprised by how easily he moved through it. His natural stillness served him well. He could hear amid the noise of war. He could see. He could discern small gestures, whispers and glances, deciphering meaning, piecing together motives and personalities. The way people spoke and didn’t speak, this made sense to him. The things they did in secret, the ways in which those secrets could be uncovered and used.
Weir took a special interest in Henry. They spent long evenings discussing their work, and the work yet to come. Weir was an evangelist. He did not see the war as the final word, merely as the end of one era and the beginning of the next. Already there was evidence of movement by the Russians, positioning for the future. Most of Henry’s colleagues couldn’t wait to get back to the States and resume their interrupted lives, but though Weir, Henry began to see what they were doing as the first clash in a much bigger battle.
They discovered that they had poetry in common, both having studied it in college. To Weir, reading poetry was another way of looking for secrets, of deciphering code. It was proof that their work could be beautiful, an art in and of itself. Eventually, Henry showed Weir some of his own poems, verses no one but Ginnie had seen. For a few days he lived in fear of Weir’s judgment, until one morning Weir returned Henry’s pages, saying only that it seemed both men were wasting their talented on the U.S. government.
When the war ended, the intelligence services were dissolved, despite Weir’s protestations. A few high-level officers were scattered to various military departments and the rest were sent home. Henry and Ginnie married and moved to Chicago, where Hannah was born, and Henry took an accounting job at a firm downtown. He rode the train every morning, feeling incompatible, a man out of place. Ill at ease, now, in civilian life. He kept in contact with Weir, who was still making the rounds in Washington, trying to convince politicians of what was happening on the other side of the world while their country slept. But there was no appetite for more conflict, and eventually Henry lost touch, resigned himself to tax codes and actuary tables in the West Loop.
Five years later, Henry looked up from his newspaper on the morning train to see Weir standing at the opposite end of the car, a slight, sly smile pulling at his lips. They had coffee at a bar on Madison, only a few blocks from the office where Henry should have been at his desk. It was an entirely uncharacteristic shirking of responsibility, wholly thrilling to Henry, there with Weir while the workaday world went on as usual around them.
Weir made his pitch, though it was really little more than a formality. People in power had finally listened, and they were creating the skeleton of a new organization. Henry would be Weir’s number two in the legitimate counterintelligence division. They would be late to the war, but, Weird said, still smiling, better late than never.
They shook hands across the table. That afternoon Henry tendered this resignation at the accounting firm. By the middle of the week, Ginnie was packed and Hannah was out of kindergarten and they were on the train to Arlington.