Local author seeks solitude to find universal answers

BARRY’S BAY – Internationally renowned author Michael D. O’Brien has been working at the craft of writing for over four decades, but he has largely done so outside of the public eye.

The author and painter, who is also a professor of art history at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy here in Barry’s Bay, is constantly emerging himself into the worlds of paint and text.
In his private studio, just south of Combermere, The Valley Gazette was able to catch up with the busy wordsmith for an exclusive interview on September 14.
Having recently received the 2012 Archbishop Adam Exner Award for Catholic Excellence in Public Life, due to his vast contributions to art and literature, O’Brien has balanced the worlds of painting and writing for many years.
“My first exhibit was in a gallery in Ottawa in 1970. Most of my work has been private commissions, universities, churches, because my work is overtly religious. I started painting first but I began to write in the late 1970’s, but my first book wasn’t published until 1996. It was almost a 20-year wait. Now, I have 18 books published through an American publisher, Ignatius Press,” he said.
Focusing on the use of acrylics in his paintings, and specifically liquid acrylics and very thin layers, O’Brien’s paintings echo biblical figures such as Adam and Eve or Moses leaving Egypt.
Raised in a Catholic home, O’Brien was born and raised in Ottawa but has lived all over the map.
“My wife is from B.C. so we lived many, many years out there. I also lived in the Arctic for a while. We moved back here to this valley almost 25 years ago. I enjoy the area,” he stated.
Learning to simplify the writing process over many years, O’Brien needs to set aside specific time to write and cannot let the work become too complex.
“My own experience is really ‘just don’t worry about making a good work of art. Just write. The process itself teaches you a lot.’ Journalism is actually a great teacher. I wrote for a magazine for a long time, and I saw my own writing faults embodied in 90 per cent of the submissions, and I corrected from that,” O’Brien said.
His 10th book, and first attempt at science fiction, is in the editing stages and is entitled Voyage to Alpha Centauri.
“The concept of the book is something I pondered for years. Why is human nature always seeking what is beyond? Why is that in us? So the ultimate search, if technology permits and time permits, shows that we are seeking far beyond the limits of our own world and beyond our own solar system,” he added.
O’Brien hopes that the book will bring up many questions for his readers, and enable them to ask more questions about themselves and the world they inhabit.
“Why do so many us look to what is beyond us? What are we really seeking? More knowledge? More data? Or is there something in us that’s yearning for a larger universe, or for an ultimate horizon? That takes us into the realm of metaphysics, which is what the book is about. What are we searching for? The book raises questions. It doesn’t try to supply all the answers,” he said.
Writing in the realm of religion, O’Brien doesn’t feel pressure or any need to hand out definite answers about life and death.
“As you get older, you learn that for some things in the realm of faith, there are answers. There are knowables. But not everything is knowable. We are limited. We are beloved by God but we are not God. Between that tension, which is a good tension, we are always looking for the beyond. Are we just clever talking animals? These are basic human questions that the arts, throughout history, have asked. What are we? Why are we here?” he stated.
Having grown up reading famous science fiction authors, O’Brien sees the genre as a way to write about the dangers of technology, and specifically, the internet.
“I’ve read sci-fi all my life. I wouldn’t say a lot, but it’s always been an interest. It just seems to me, in the modern age, our fascination and even obsession with technology as power, presents certain gifts to us, but also certain dangers, and we need to look at that very carefully. There are a lot of books on this now; the way the internet re-shapes the brain. I don’t think the average person who is addicted to technology is asking these questions. How is this thing shaping me? It’s serving me, obviously, but at what point does the tool become the master?” O’Brien noted.

Story continues in the September 19, 2012 issue of The Valley Gazette.