At 21 years old, wordsmith a.j.k. o’donnell (who does not capitalize her name) is a literary force to be reckoned with. In 2018, she published her second book, This Void Beckons, and embarked on a nationwide tour in support of the tome, which features evocative prose structured as poetry.
“My goal in life is to put out 24 works, whatever that looks like—books, screenplays, poetry collections, anything literary project-wise,” says o’donnell, who published her first book, Nicoteane and Other Foolish Mistakes, in 2015 when she was still in high school. “Twenty-four is an important number to me; it’s the day I was born…I’m two books in, which means I have 22 pieces to go. So, about every two years.”
This Void Beckons came out under o’donnell’s own Cracked Jar Press, which she says she started with the intent to publish works from underrepresented writers. Using the publishing and tour process of her own book as a prototype, o’donnell says she learned a lot about the overall “literary atmosphere,” booking and marketing tours, formatting and publishing, and more.
The tour, which included stops in New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Omaha, Lincoln, and Iowa City, was supported throughout by the Colin Higgins Foundation and regionally by the Nebraska Writers Collective. A 2016 recipient of the Colin Higgins Foundation’s Youth Courage Award, o’donnell is grateful for their support and says they allowed her lots of range to steer the tour and choose venues.
“As much as the last year has been about me growing as a writer, it’s also been about me growing as a young professional and learning how to navigate my circles to get the support I need,” o’donnell says. She recently started a full-time position as national communications manager for the nonprofit organization Black and Pink Inc., a prison abolitionist organization supporting LGBTQ and HIV-positive prisoners.
Traveling was also beneficial to o’donnell’s personal growth. She relished experiences such as popping into bodegas and writing poetry on the subway in New York and exploring the Mission District in San Francisco. As she left copies of her book scattered across the nation, she also left little pieces of her heart in the places she fell in love with.
“I like to balance the physical around me with the emotional inside of me. So, just seeing where that equilibrium is in different environments is really empowering and brings lots of artistic energy for me,” o’donnell says. “I also think for me as a young trans writer in Omaha, this tour was really vital for my ability to stay focused and grounded, because when I go to big cities like New York, L.A., and San Francisco, there are entire populations of LGBTQ people walking around and it’s very empowering for me.”
In addition to her writing, o’donnell has been a voracious reader since childhood. She says she’s “always kind of in a world between writing and reading.” If ever she felt nervous to stand in front of a crowd and speak while on tour, she conjured her childhood self, which she describes as “very much a monkey-bars-in-the-summer kind of kid, sprawled with a book under a tree.”
“My first thought to calm myself down was to go back to that little kid in the backyard reading Harry Potter or Percy Jackson and just remember: ‘You get to do this. You got to write your own book,’” she says.
In true tour-de-force fashion, o’donnell has plenty more in the pipeline as she continues her “sacred experience” with writing and pursues her goal of 24 works. This literary dynamo is working on a novel (the working title is What the Crevice Holds), a screenplay, and another poetry collection, as well as taking classes at Metropolitan Community College, with the ultimate goal to one day earn her Ph.D.
Visit ajkodonnell.com for more information.
This article was printed in the May edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.