‘Special’ Creator Ryan O’Connell Hopes Debut Novel Pushes Industry to Greenlight Work of More Disabled Artists

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Ryan O’Connell is used to mining his personal life for the greater creative good.

His breakout sitcom Special, which ran for two seasons on Netflix and was nominated for four Emmy Awards, was based on his own journey as a gay disabled man coming to terms with his cerebral palsy. He played a version of himself in the starring role. Before O’Connell came to Los Angeles, during the era when blogging could beget minor celebrity status, he wrote a highly popular column for Thought Catalog about his dating life as an early-twenties-something in New York City. Now, he’s releasing his debut novel Just By Looking At Him — a frothy, spicy story about a self-described “gay man in his mid-thirties with an expensive haircut.” Elliot has cerebral palsy, lives in Los Angeles, and is struggling with a longterm relationship slowly curdled into something between stale and slightly toxic and the psychological warfare that is a Hollywood writers room. Sitting in the well-manicured backyard of his Eastside Los Angeles home (where he and partner, fellow writer Jonathan Parks-Ramage, live among framed photos of O’Connell’s literary heroes Joan Didion and Nora Ephron), O’Connell describes the book as “emotionally” autobiographical, but insists it isn’t a veiled memoir. “Coming from Special, I could see how you’d read the logline of this book and be like, she’s at it again!,” he says. “But story-wise, it’s all fiction.”

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Fans of O’Connell’s very particular writing style will find a familiar biting humor in the novel — Elliot narrates in first person and takes no prisoners in his running commentary. Of his coworker in the writer’s room of the formulaic network sitcom he’s begrudgingly staffed on: “Cindy was fifty-blank years old and dressed like a receptionist who had recently lost her moral center.” Of a distant friend who chooses to live in Santa Monica: “The first sign of being unwell.” Of his sex worker, River: “[He] was objectively handsome, like if James Franco fucked Dave Franco and gave birth to a less problematic Franco.”

O’Connell learned early on in his career that his voice was one of his biggest professional assets. His work at Thought Catalog scored him an agent and a book deal (his 2015 memoir I’m Special later served as source material for the series), and within weeks of moving to LA he earned a spot writing for MTV’s Awkward, a show that leaned heavily on slang and youthful banter. “I realized then that for better or worse my voice was so fucking specific that there were, like, three [existing] projects I would make sense working on,” he says. “I was never going to go be able to hop onto New Girl. The only way to sustain a career was by making things myself.”

Special was undoubtedly personal and wholly original, but O’Connell admits that the group project factors required of making a television show (and serving as showrunner) took away from the pure expression of self that comes out of solitary writing and creating — that pure expression is what Just By Looking At Him offered the author. When the pandemic lockdown began, shutting down production of Special’s second season, he decided to start writing 1,000 words a day. It was both an artistic exercise and a coping mechanism: “I don’t like feeling a loss of control.” He continues with a laugh, adding “If you want to get all liberal-arts-school about it, it probably comes from being born into a body I can’t control.” He didn’t intend to write an entire book, but Elliot’s story flew out of him, the novel’s narrative beats coming easily. “I wrote mini cliffhangers,” he says “So that it gave me a problem to solve the next day.” The first draft was done in three months. He’s aware of the rarity there — his partner, Parks-Ramage wrote his own debut novel (Yes, Daddy) over several years, a more typical pace — and describes the sensations that come over him during the writing process as “witchy.”

Literary exorcism complete, O’Connell needed to find a book agent. He was set on finding gay representation, so reached out to author and friend Melissa Broder (2021’s Milk Fed) for help — “I’m a TV bimbo, she’s a literary diva” he says — and eventually signed with a publisher who was excited to release the book without dulling the edges. The novel is unfiltered in its descriptions of Elliot’s sex life (the opening line is “My boyfriend Gus has a beautiful penis” and the realities of inhabiting a disabled body (walking into work on the studio lot leaves him “drenched in sweat, looking like Reese Witherspoon in Wild”) and it was imperative to the author that it remain that way. He also felt strongly that it should be allowed to remain a beach read. “Usually when a marginalized person is talking about their experience, it’s literary with a capital L,” he says. “But the reality is I’m a Nancy Meyers bitch. I’m commercial fiction.”

Ryan O’Connell as Julian in ‘Queer as Folk’ - Credit: Courtesy of Alyssa Moran/Peacock
Ryan O’Connell as Julian in ‘Queer as Folk’ - Credit: Courtesy of Alyssa Moran/Peacock

Courtesy of Alyssa Moran/Peacock

Just By Looking At Him will release the same week the Queer As Folk reboot premiers on Peacock — O’Connell acted and wrote for the show — and the film adaptation is already in the works. He’s experiencing unmistakable success, but cautions that he still feels professional unease. Part of it is that his upbringing in Ventura, Calif., far from the excesses of Los Angeles, adds another notch in his outsider belt. As a child he never even expected to attend a liberal arts college; a settlement from the hospital where he was born funded his tuition and supplemented his meager salary in the early days in New York. “The culture is rigged that way,” he says. “That money opened up a whole new world for me.” But he is also candid about the difficulty he still experiences getting the kind of content he likes to make greenlit by an industry slow to diversify. He recently lost a part in a broad studio comedy because of what he describes as concerns over the role reading as offensive if played by a disabled person: “They couched it in disability wokeness, but Hollywood is still the toxic bitch she’s always been.” And the success of Special hasn’t translated to an expansion in disabled content the way he thought it might. “I thought there’d be more incoming calls,” he says.

Publishing, too, has been slower to widen the breadth of authorial voices and topics than its critics would hope. The industry relies heavily on comps, and books that are first of their kind can scare off editors and marketers. When publishers passed on Just By Looking At Him, they cited its similarity to Special as the reason. O’Connell takes umbrage with that reasoning, citing prolific filmmakers whose entire body of work is variations on the same theme: Sofia Coppola and her documentation of the malaise of wealth people, or Woody Allen (“gross,” he adds) and his neurotic New York stories. “And, I’m sorry and I love her, but Sally Rooney literally wrote the same book multiple times,” he says. “No one questions it. We’re okay with artists dipping from the same well over and over again as long as it’s a certain kind of artist.”

He bristles at the idea that there’s only room for so many queer disabled narratives, and notes that his worst fear about his own success is that it may come at the expense of another person’s. His goal is to help push the business — on screen and on the page — greenlight the work of more disabled artists. And he vows never to stop taking up space. “I spent so many years having to emotionally bottom that I’m just done doing it,” he says. “I’m going to have the confidence of Rob Schneider in the ‘90s.”

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