Faces of Carapace: Jayne O’Connor's family story

Jayne O'Connor talks about the vagaries of narrative, and men and women together.


This is the latest in a series of profiles from Carapace, a free event of true personal stories told without notes to a pre-chosen theme at Manuel’s Tavern, 602 N. Highland Ave., on the fourth Tuesday of every month at 7:30 p.m.

When the members of Jayne O’Connor’s huge Irish Catholic family – “My mom is one of eight children, and my dad is one of six” – gather in St. Louis, they rent a hall with a public-address system, and they tell stories.

This could explain a lot about O’Connor.

At  Christmas, the “Secret Santa” routine gets a narrative twist. “Along with the gift, which no longer really matters, you have to tell a story,” says O’Connor, 30, whose taste for language runs deep.

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” she says. “I was writing when I was a little kid.” Her family’s spoken-word tradition combines with a more individual, literary impulse in her. At Carapace, her stories turn out equal parts rollicking and smart.

The writing bug led her last October to found HydeATL, which publishes a zine and sponsors readings around town. Amanda Mills, of the Atlanta Zine Library, encouraged O’Connor’s print ambitions. The city’s burgeoning crowd of literary artists did the rest.

It was Melysa Martinez, former sex columnist for Creative Loafing, who told O’Connor about Carapace.

“The first time I went, I wanted to do it,” O’Connor says, though she was nervous and only later worked up the gumption to throw her name in the hat. The atmosphere – “very laid-back, not judgmental” – helped. 

"A natural appeal, because of the performance aspect" 

O’Connor, sandwiched between a pair of brothers – one two years older than she, the other two years younger (in the family’s customary birthing department, O’Connor says, “my mom scaled it down”) – developed a balanced attitude about the male of the species.

“I learned how to fight early,” she says. “Some young girls look up to boys in a way that I never did. I didn’t romanticize being friends with guys. Girls will say, ‘I only like hanging out with guys, because girls are awful.’ I was like, ‘Boys are not that wonderful. My brother sticks boogies on me.’”

Her parents, she says, “didn’t have a babysitter when we got older and my mom went to work. There was a lot of wrestling and breaking things. We used to put each other in suitcases and drag them around the house”

O’Connor writes a column for Fanzine that follows her adventures in dating, accounts delivered in a way made possible by her less-than-awestruck distance from men.

Yet she has the story-lover’s need to find out more about other peoples’ lives.

“I’m always going to be Jayne O’Connor,” she says. “I’m never going to magically leap into anyone else.” At events such as Carapace, and in literature, “you get a little insight into what it’s like to be somebody else.”

The literary and spoken-word universes are “bound to overlap,” as they’re doing in Atlanta, she says. “Especially since now the writing community is performing –  it’s off the page.” O’Connor points to the likes of Write Club Atlanta, where literary work is performed, while being read aloud.

“Carapace has a natural appeal, because there’s the performance aspect” in it, too, she says. 

On being afraid, and the big bad (Virginia) Woolf

 “When I come to Carapace, I have no idea what the next thing I’m going to say is,” O’Connor says. “But I’ve probably told the stories before.” The result is that audience members often see a rare balance of practiced storytelling and I-just-thought-of-this hilarity.

Her efforts ahead include a chapbook of modern fairy tales – stories for adults. Most fairy tales, in their original versions, are “very dark, disturbing, scary stories,” she says. “It would be more like that. Creepy, supernatural.”

Otherwise, she wants to “continue to work with other people. Have a miniseries, TV show. An empire.” She laughs.

O’Connor is one of the raconteurs slated for the Carapace event at the Decatur Book Festival this weekend, a program that commemorates Virginia Stephen’s marriage to Leonard Woolf. The show is about men, women and the making of art between them. O’Connor’s story involves a former boyfriend’s efforts to thwart – as well as, perversely, encourage – her creative endeavors.

And the next Carapace event is Tues., Aug. 28, at 7:30 p.m., in Manuel’s Tavern. “I’ll be there,” says O’Connor, who lives almost directly across the street. But she wouldn’t provide any clues about her story. Come and find out.

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