'Special' Creator Ryan O'Connell to Release Debut Novel (Exclusive)

Ryan O'Connell
Ryan Pfluger

The creator behind Netflix's Emmy-nominated shortform comedy chats with THR about how his new novel "happened kind of by accident" and helped save his life.

Ryan O'Connell is lending his writing to a debut novel.

The Emmy-nominated and Writers Guild Award-winning writer, actor, and producer behind Netflix's Emmy-nominated shortform comedy Special is set to release a debut novel called Just By Looking at HimThe Hollywood Reporter can exclusively announce. The upcoming novel will be published by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in Spring 2022.

Publisher Atria Books describes it as "hysterically funny and richly drawn." "Just By Looking at Him is a coming-of-age love story that will touch readers of all genres," says senior editor of Atria Books Michelle Herrera Mulligan. "As an editor, it’s rare to find a story that both informs and entertains on such a satisfying level. When I received the manuscript on submission, I burst into laughter at the first line, dropped everything to finish, and fought to make this book a lead title on my list. I know readers will fall in love just as hard as I did."

Speaking with THR ahead of the book announcement, O'Connell admits he never intended to write a novel and Just By Looking at Him "happened kind of by accident" while at home during the pandemic.

"It was early April [and] Special had just shut down production. I was feeling full 'boy interrupted,' and I wanted to do a writing exercise, just writing a thousand words a day. And I had no idea what this thing was going to turn into," he tells THR. "Once I started going with it, it kind of poured out of me. It was a really kind of blissful writing experience amongst the backdrop of existential dread and tumult."

O'Connell says writing his debut novel became therapeutic for him as he endured personal struggles.

"My drinking had pretty much spiraled out of control in the beginning of the pandemic. I had been in a TBD relationship with alcohol for some time and I had been wanting to change it and felt powerless to do so," O'Connell says. "I started writing the novel in a way to kind of write this character who was like a high functioning alcoholic as a way to kind of be honest with myself for the first time about drinking and my own relationship to it. And I felt like once I wrote those feelings down, I couldn't lie to myself anymore."

O'Connell shares that halfway through writing the book, he got sober, which was a "nice byproduct" of writing it. "I mean, people say like,' this thing saved my life,' but TBH, this book kind of did?" he says, admitting that he finished writing the book in its entirety in four months.

In Just By Looking at Him, O'Connell tells the story of a thirty-something gay TV writer with cerebral palsy who appears to be living a great life but behind the scenes is struggling with growing alcohol dependence and cheating on his loving boyfriend Gus.

Atria describes the story as one that centers on "a man falling down a rabbit hole of sexual obsession in an attempt to be seen as just a body in a gay world fixated on perfection, who's limping towards self-acceptance one (paid) rim job at a time." O'Connell assures that though the "emotions and themes" of the novel are "deeply personal" to him, "the actual story and the events that transpire" are fictional.

Apart from his work on television, O'Connell also penned a memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, released in 2015, which became the inspiration for Special. Though O'Connell says he's "proud" of his first book, he considers Just By Looking at Him a "redo."

"I just feel like I've grown a lot as a writer and as a person," he tells THR. "And I kind of have figured out what I wanted to say. I mean, when I wrote my first book, I had just come out about having cerebral palsy to my book editor. Like I hadn't told anyone...I just was very in the beginning of my journey with disability."

For his upcoming book and its story, O'Connell aimed to "dive into what it's like as a disabled person to move through a world that is not built with you in mind and how the system is sort of rigged against you in explicit and implicit ways" and how you "have to perform insane mental gymnastics to get through."

Prior to writing his new novel, O'Connell was used to telling a complete story in the shortform arena with his series, Special, as well as having previously written half-hour episodic comedies like Awkward and the Will & Grace revival. But while writing his first fiction novel, O'Connell admits he felt so much "creative liberation" with being able to venture into the story and having "breathing room with the material" without having to worry about abiding by "a sit-com formula" or "one-hour drama formula."

"With a novel honey, you can take a leisurely stroll. Like you can take the scenic route... you can get lost in the woods and then you can kind of breadcrumb your way out of there and you'd be like, Oh, okay!" he quips.

As O'Connell continues to stay busy with edits for Just By Looking at Him, a second season for Special and even binge-watching Below Deck ("I'm like currently dumpster diving on like season five," he admits laughing), he jokes that the idea of writing another novel makes him turn pale but he isn't ruling it out."I feel like I have one in me every 10 years!"

Just By Looking at Him will be released in Spring 2022.