Interview with Scott O’Connor
- by Karen DeWitt
- May 13, 2014
A CIA analyst conducts mind control experiments by day and plays normal husband and father at night. Half World explores the inner world of Henry March.
Scott O’Connor’s Half World is about the 1950s Cold War mind-control program, MKUltra, that the CIA ran until 1973. The first half of the book focuses on Henry March, a highly professional, though psychically wounded, analyst who routinely uses brainwashing, psychedelic drugs, hypnosis, sexual abuse, and torture on unsuspecting Canadians and Americans. The results of this illegal government operation are deleterious. A family man with a wife and two children, March is matter-of-fact about the mind control and manipulation he imposes — a far darker Tony Soprano character who can do murder yet still enjoy his kids and photography — until he can’t. He disappears. The story picks up 20 years later with another agent, also wounded and disoriented, and March’s daughter, and the search for the missing March.
The two parts of this novel seem to be very different in tone. The first half is almost emotionlessness, while the second half has an underlying, frenetic energy. Did you do that to contrast the difference in the eras — the acceptance of the status quo of the 1950s and the usurpation of conformity of the 1970s?
The characters drive everything. I try to stay close enough to the characters that the tone of each section of the book becomes a reflection of their personalities and struggles. They are most definitely products of very different eras. Henry March is more cerebral and analytical, cooler emotionally, so that part of the book derives some of its tension from the forces working to demolish his rage for order. Dickie Ashby, in the book’s second part, is far more emotionally hot, more chaotic, looser in thought and action, and so his sections of the book take on those characteristics.
Why did you jump back and forth in time? It left me not really getting a good insight into March, who’d been betrayed by his mentor, yet still believed in what he was doing.
The novel has only one real time jump, from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. I wanted to deal with the men who conduct the experiments in the first part of their book, but also with their families and their victims, and to find those effects, I had to move a half generation out. In this way, the book can open up from the more claustrophobic world of Henry March to the larger society that he helps, unwittingly, to create.
Both the Cold War and the CIA were new in the 1950s, but in your research, did you ultimately find out what the purpose of MKUltra was? Was there anything positive that came out of it? Or, as in your novel, is it that the reader learns the unwelcome truth that humans, as in the Milgram experiment, if they believe in authority, will simply follow orders and inflict pain on fellow human beings?
As far as I know, very little relevant scientific research came out of MKUltra. Its legacy is one of damage and abuse. If anything, maybe it can serve as a reminder of a society’s responsibility to look out for its most vulnerable members.
Novels have no obligation to lift the spirit of the reader? Your novel is very dark and dispassionate. What emotion do you think that most of your readers will be left with?
I don’t believe that novels, or novelists, have any obligation apart from writing in the most truthful way they can. Every reader’s experience with a book is going to be completely subjective, completely personal, completely different. A reader’s spirits might be lifted by a particular book, but I think that writing to steer a reader toward a specific emotional response gives us pretty formulaic and uninteresting fiction.
What do you say to the reader who has a very difficult time believing that any of your story is plausible? Do you want to hit them over the head or smile?
A reader only has to believe that a story is plausible within the world of that particular book. Some of the most fantastic fiction is fully plausible while you’re immersed in that world. Fiction can, hopefully, resonate with us after we’ve left the page, but it doesn’t have to be plausible in the way that most of our everyday lives need to be.
How does the altered brain ever fully recover?
This isn’t my area of expertise, so I couldn’t say how someone would recover from an experience like what happens in the book. In general, I think that we need to make mental healthcare much easier to access, in terms of availability and cost, and we need to keep working to move past the unnecessary stigma that these issues are things people have to hide and suffer from and deal with alone.
What’s next on your plate? To read? To write?
Next on my plate to read is Michelle Huneven’s Off Course. Next up to write is another in a series of short stories I’ve been working on.
DeWitt was a journalist for many years and for the last decade has been a
senior communications professional for nonprofit organizations. DeWitt covered
the White House and national politics for the New York Times; foreign affairs and the White House for USA TODAY; and was a senior producer
for ABC’s Nightline.