Matthew O’Brien’s debut book Beneath the Neon (Huntington Press, 2007) has taken the world by “storm.” Matt spent years exploring the mysteries of the underground storm drainage systems in Las Vegas. He eventually found his way out and penned the book.
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon in August, I invited Matt to sit down with me to discuss his books, his inspiration, and his view into the shadows of Las Vegas. When I arrived at the coffee shop in the downtown area, Matt was entertaining two fans by signing copies of his new book for them. I didn’t ask him whether he liked to be recognized, but by the smile on his face, I could tell the celebrity feel was welcomed.
And then my interview commenced as we found a table with the Stratosphere towering over us in the distance.
1. I asked Matt what inspired him to write about Las Vegas. He brought me back to December 1997 when he graduated college near Atlanta, Georgia. He wanted to pursue a writing career, and he needed a place to arouse his ambitions. He drove out to Sin City and slept on his friend’s apartment floor as he took on any and every freelance gig he could find, which included writing articles for the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas CityLife. After getting his own place, Matt didn’t even have a desk to write on, keeping his computer on the floor. Luckily, static electricity build-up from the lights in Las Vegas didn’t short out his PC!
2. I probed further and wondered what exactly had attracted Matt to venture underneath the city. He said it had been an article about suspected murder Timmy “T.J.” Webber in 2002. Webber had used the dank and dark underground storm drains to evade police. The fact that someone had escaped to the underground intrigued Matt beyond his wits. He had to find out what else was down there.
3. I asked Matt how Beneath the Neon and his newest work, My Week at the Blue Angel, have changed his life. He said his first book, Beneath the Neon, started out well in Las Vegas when it was released in 2007, but the recession in America that followed actually breathed new life into the book as the media grabbed ahold of it. The media loves using Las Vegas as a finger on America’s pulse with its volatile economy and upside down housing market. Matt’s work fit right in.
4. Noir stories often feature characters who are inherently good, but somehow lose their way. One of my very favorite novels is John O’Brien’s beautifully tragic Leaving Las Vegas (I asked Matt if there is any relation. He chuckled and said “no.”) Matt’s writings deal with this theme relative to Las Vegas. I asked him if he found a common reason why people lose their way in this city. His response included the pursuit of the American Dream. This city entices people from all over the world, from all walks of life (from veterans of war to starving writers!) with an opportunity to live the American Dream. But although there is opportunity everywhere, temptations also fill this city. Gambling, alcohol, drugs, and sex are habit forming and people often become victim to the demons in this city. They need an escape from the lights, and Matt found that the massive underground drainage system provides some of them with this escape. The only thing these individuals need to worry about is if it rains, and although it rarely rains in Las Vegas, when it does, it floods.
5. I asked Matt the most bizarre thing he has seen firsthand on the streets of Las Vegas? Mine would have to be one of the quick-handed street solicitors (accidentally?) handing some girly cards to a kid. It was devilishly funny and deeply disturbing. Matt named similar observations—the bizarre costume characters roaming Fremont Street, and the subtle and often-overlooked interactions between dealer and gambler. He notices the little things.
Stayed tuned for Part 2 of my interview next week where Matt talks about the bizarre things he has witnessed under the streets of Las Vegas.
Matthew O’Brien is the author of Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas (Huntington Press, 2007) and My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas (Huntington Press, 2010). He has won several first-place awards in the Nevada Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest, including Journalist of Merit in 2002 and Outstanding Journalist in 2006. Matt can be found online at www.beneaththeneon.com and on twitter @beneaththeneon and Facebook.