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The “Banished Children of Eve” at 20

March 20, 2014

Twenty years ago this month, I published my first novel, “Banished Children of Eve.” When the idea for the book first came to me, I conceived of it as a work of nonfiction, not a novel. I had put on temporary hold (alas, it turned out to be permanent) my pursuit of a Ph.D. in history and was working in Albany as a gubernatorial speechwriter. Lapsed historian though I was, I hadn’t lost my interest in the past.

In the course of researching a speech on housing policy, I stumbled across the first report made by the state legislature on conditions in New York City. Dated 1855, it was a Dickensian catalogue of poverty, disease and appalling overcrowding in the immigrant wards on or near the city’s waterfront. As I dug deeper, it became obvious that the vast majority of those living amid these wretched and unsanitary conditions were Irish immigrants and their children who’d fled the Great Famine and its aftermath.

Though I was soon finished with the speech, I had just begun the exhaustive process of research into the epic effects that the Famine immigration had on American urban life in general and on the shaping of New York in particular. Overnight, New York went from being an important Atlantic entrepôt to what it remains to this day: an immensely energetic, sometimes conflicted, always dynamic immigrant city of global proportions.

The deeper I dug, the more I was struck by how every aspect of the city was changed by the sudden arrival of a tsunami of traumatized peasants fleeing the worst civilian catastrophe in Western Europe between the Thirty Years’ War and World War One. I was equally impressed by the amnesia that seemed to erase the scope and sweep of these changes not just from the minds of most New Yorkers but from the very consciousness of these immigrants’ descendants, myself included.

As I devoured newspaper accounts and historical records, I gave real thought for the first time to the fact that my own great grandparents, Michael and Margaret Manning, were buried among these words and statistics. Beyond that they arrived in or around 1847, I knew that they probably came from Kilkenny. It seems they might have been illiterate, and it’s even possible that the name Manning had been changed from Mangin due to an error in transcription.

I started out wanting to write a social history that described in exhaustive detail the flight of the Famine Irish to New York–a million of them entered the port between 1845 and 55–and what awaited them once they arrived and struggle to start new lives. The year of research that I allotted myself stretched into three and then four. The more I learned, the more I felt there was more to know.

The historical details were endlessly fascinating. And yet, I grew increasingly frustrated by what was beyond my learning and what I could never know. The unrecorded everyday experiences of these immigrants, their quotidian fears and expectations, their fondest memories and deepest hopes were lost. They were faceless and voiceless. The density and complexity of their passions and pain were reduced to a single line in a census or death certificate.

Eventually, I gave up on history. If I was going to reach these people in their individuality and particularity, if I was going to enter their vanished world, I could only do it through an act of the imagination. I decided to attempt a novel.

I started by imagining a story built around the catastrophic Draft Riots of 1863, the worst urban disturbance in American history. It took three years of writing before I finally got to the riots. The characters–African Americans as well as Irish and native Yankees–took control of the plot. They led me down the labyrinthine ways of their individual existences, each in his or her own way a banished child of eve, all of them moving through this vale of tears to the music of Stephen Foster, whose life and songs are the book’s leitmotiv.

In the twenty years that “Banished Children” has remained in print, it has opened more doors, taken me more places and introduced me to more people than I could have ever possibly imagined. I rapidly discovered that the great silence that followed the Great Famine wasn’t a unique part of my family’s legacy but woven into the fabric of the Irish-American experience.

As I traveled with the book, I met an amazing array of artists and writers–Irish and otherwise. They are involved in unearthing, exploring and celebrating the rich and hidden histories of immigrants, slaves and working people whose labor, sacrifices, songs, stories and aspirations, though often given scant attention in official accounts, have enriched our country beyond all measure.

The night before “Banished Children” came out, I met Tom Flanagan at the Madison Avenue Pub for a celebratory drink. As well as a master novelist–his “Year of the French” is, in my opinion, among the greatest historical novels ever written–Tom was a friend and mentor. Tom toasted the future. “Don’t be surprised, “ he said, “at how far your banished children will travel and, if you’re lucky, at all the friends they’ll bring home.”

Tom was a prophet as well as a teacher.

(This essay was published in the 3/14/14 edition of the Irish Voice)

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LAUREL FOR A LAUREATE

January 13, 2014

In my experience, most novelists have tried and failed at one profession or another before they turned to fiction writing. I failed at several. High school teacher. Court officer. Wall Street messenger. Historian. Alas, the list is long and sorrowful.

When I first took up writing, I aspired to be a poet not a novelist, but I failed at that too. Maybe that’s why I have such admiration for poets. I know how hard it is to succeed at producing a single worthwhile poem, never mind to do it year after year.

Except for an occasional foray undertaken as a private exercise and not an attempt to redeem my former failure, I no longer write poetry. But I continue to read the work of poets I admire, the famous (Yeats, Auden, Heaney, et al.) and the not so famous (Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is a favorite).

Recently, I’ve found myself making repeat visits to Daniel Thomas Moran’s most-recent book of poems, A Shed for Wood (Salmon Poetry, 2013) Moran has made his living as a dentist, a trade marked by ruthless practicality and a prosaic focus on the material and mechanical–drill bits, needles, pliers, braces, bridges and the growing armory of hi-tech devices to prevent, remove and replace the ravages of routine and inevitable decay.

In essence, dentistry has always seemed to be the polar opposite of poetry. Certainly, there have been medical doctors who’ve excelled at poetry. The American poet William Carlos Williams comes immediately to mind. But dentists?  In my prejudiced view, dentists have always been to doctors what plumbers are to architects, mechanics rather than artists, their expertise necessary and useful but lacking the holistic vision and wider understanding that we expect (if rarely encounter) among physicians.

Moran has forced me re-examine that prejudice. His poetry is grounded in everyday realities as common and unromantic as canines and molars. But like the master dentist he is (Moran has been a private practitioner as well as a professor of dentistry at Boston University), he constantly probes, exposes, drills deep, undeterred by surfaces.

For me, Moran’s verse combines elements of my favorite triumvirate of American poets–Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. It is earthy, unpretentious, accessible, agnostic, sometimes comic, often serious, frequently both, rooted in the ordinary–mayflies, horseshoe crabs, sparrows, tumbled stones and treetops–yet capable of delivering a jolt of understanding as sharp and sudden as when a dental drill strikes an unanesthetized nerve.

I’ve been keeping A Shed for Wood beside my bed. I read a few poems each night. I mull their insights and their meanings. Moran and I differ in our worldviews: he, a stalwart unbeliever; I, an incurable adherent of the creed. But the wisdom in his poems transcends such boundaries. On my way to sleep, I embrace the poet’s invitation to go “Where we can be with our aloneness / at rest with its bottomless still / and inhale the life which inhabits us.”

Moran is a favorite of several prominent writers, including the late Samuel Menashe, a poet of the first rank and the first to be honored with the Poetry Foundation’s “Neglected Masters Award.” Yet despite this, and despite the fact he’s been accorded a number of honors–including a stint as the poet laureate of New York’s Suffolk County–Moran’s work, in my view, has never come close to receiving the attention it deserves.

Moran now lives with his wife Karen in the New Hampshire woods. I’m not sure if he still practices dentistry, but as A Shed for Wood makes clear, he continues to practice poetry at the highest level, turning out poems that serve as a source of wonder, enjoyment, enlightenment, and laughter.

You lovers of words, do yourself a favor: Neglect him no longer.

A Shed for Wood is available on Amazon.

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The Thrill of the Trilogy

November 4, 2013

My introduction to the triune came early. Each morning as my classmates and I made the sign of the cross, my first-grade nun stressed that the Trinity–one God in three separate and distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost–was essential to our faith and, ergo, to our salvation. Since my six-year-old brain couldn’t make much sense of it, I was happy to be told the three-person God was a mystery beyond human understanding and had almost driven mad the theologians who’d tried to solve it.
Still, it stuck. Three in one, one in three. The holy trifecta. In the large stained glass window on the south wall of our Bronx parish church, St. Patrick held up a shamrock. One stem, three petals: They glowed a single emerald green as the sun lofted behind them. For that moment at least, the riddle of the Trinity ceased to bewilder.
Over the years, as I wandered amid the thickets of secularity, I learned that, as well as a marker of religious dogma, three brought to whatever it was associated with a special aura, whether exciting (Triple Crown), silly (Three Stooges), erotic (ménage à trois), scary (Third Reich), exceptional (triple play), or sad (strike three). Just by being three, ordinary things gained a special cachet.
When I set out to become a writer of books, I imagined one would suffice. A historian manqué, just shy of a Ph.D., I first stumbled into speech writing. I decided to try it for a year, save enough to go back to school, finish the dissertation, and turn it into a book. “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men,” 
as Scottish poet Robert Burns put it, “gang aft agley.” I ended up scribbling for two New York governors and five chairmen of Time Inc./Time Warner across a span of three decades.
On the plus side, my job involved indoor work and required no manual labor. It paid the mortgage and tuitions, and included a defined benefit plan; on the minus, it was frequently stressful, sometimes grinding and always anonymous. Occasionally a speechwriter or two has slipped from behind the curtain and gained fame crafting words for mouths other than his/her own. But as I saw it, once you take the king’s shilling, you do the king’s bidding, and whatever praise or blame ensues is the sovereign’s alone.
As time went on, I felt a growing need to put my name on words I could publicly claim as mine. I got to my office two hours early in order to attempt a novel. Having grown used to churning out large chunks of copy in short amounts of time, I calculated I’d have a finished manuscript in a year or two. Robert Burns proved right again. Ten years later, I left the delivery room cradling my long-gestating mind child, Banished Children of Eve, a six-hundred-page saga of Civil War New York.
The first agent I submitted it to was dismissive. I hadn’t written one novel, she wrote, but “sausaged three in one.” I was stung. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized its truth. My novel was the story of Irish famine immigrants, the frightening, fecund mongrel world of mid-19th-century New York, and the impact of the Civil War. These were the three petals. Minstrel-songster Stephen Foster was stem and sausage skin. His music is the book’s leitmotiv. There are worse things to be accused of, I decided, than being a Trinitarian. I stuck with three in one, and that’s how it was published.
I drew a great deal of satisfaction from at last having my name on writing all my own, so much so that I decided one wasn’t enough. I had other stories I wanted to write. Faced by commercial constraints as well as those of my own mortality, I knew the next had to be shorter. Unfortunately, hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the hang of the short form, which required the precision of the pointillist. I preferred the Jackson Pollack school, buckets of paint splashed across expansive canvases.
With the second novel, I decided to reverse the first: In place of three packed in one, one would be divided in three. The stem I started with was Fintan Dunne, Irish-American ex-cop and private eye, a veteran of World Wars I and II, whose formal education ended in the Catholic Protectory, an orphanage cum reformatory in the Bronx. In hardboiled style, Fin is a man who, if he ever had any illusions about human nature, had them kicked out of him so long ago he can’t remember what they were.
Fin is what the writer William Kennedy calls a “cynical humanist.” Distrustful of all authority, skeptical of most causes, uninterested in heroics, he is reluctant to get involved. Whatever the case, he knows from the outset that there are no perfect endings, no spotless souls, and that some mysteries are better left unsolved. Still, despite his understanding of the futility of good intentions and the hopeless fallibility of everyone–including himself–Fin can’t help but try to see that some modicum of justice is done.
I followed Fin as he fought with eugenicists and fifth columnists (Hour of the Cat), wrestled with the still-unsolved case of New York’s most-famous missing jurist (The Man Who Never Returned), and burrowed into the Cold War’s intricate machinations and betrayals (Dry Bones). I’ve seen the city and the world through his eyes as he experienced two world wars, the Great Depression and the gloom-and-boom of the Eisenhower era, the rollercoaster years W.H. Auden accurately labeled “The Age of Anxiety.”
I’m grateful for our three-legged journey. Fintan has been great company every step of the way. Now that we finished our last caper and said our goodbyes, I’m hopeful that I’ve told his story the way he wanted it told, and that the three tales together–separate and distinct yet parts of the same whole–capture him in a jaded emerald glow.

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A View of My Own

October 19, 2013

For the first twenty-five years of my writing life, I wrote in my office, at my desk, five days a week, in the early morning. I almost never wrote at home or on weekends. When I got to work, I’d keep my door closed and, except on dark winter mornings, leave the lights off so no one would know I was there.

I mused about someday having a nook, a corner, a cave–some space–in which I could go and just do my writing, with no time limits or distractions. But anytime I was tempted to feel sorry for myself, I recalled an account I’d read by Alexander Solzhenitsyn of his time in the Gulag.

Denied pen or paper, and facing severe punishment if he were caught writing anything–never mind a fictional account of life in the camps–he used the burnt tips of matches and toilet paper to write in whatever moments of solitude he could snatch for himself. That’s how he completed the manuscript of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Each morning, Solzhenitsyn remembered, as he and his fellow prisoners mustered in the freezing, Siberian dawn to be counted and dispatched to do heavy labor, the loudspeaker blared patriotic songs or official propaganda.

One day, however, it played a radio program form Moscow on “The Writer’s Life.” The first thing a writer should do, the announcer intoned, was to secure a comfortable place that was his alone. His desk should be uncluttered and the research and books he needed carefully catalogued and shelved. Quiet was crucial, although it was permissible to have classical music playing softly in the background.

“Now,” the announcer said, “you will be ready to begin the work of writing.”

We know what happened to Solzhenitsyn. He survived the camps. His manuscript was circulated in private and eventually published. He went on to write a series of epic novels and “The Gulag Archipelago,” an exhaustive and influential account of Stalin’s far-flung network of slave-labor camps. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But what, I wonder, happened to all those writers listening to the same broadcast he had, those who found their quiet, secure place, the uncluttered desk, classical music playing in the background?

I now write at home, in Hastings-on-Hudson, in an office I had built on the top floor. (The contractor was Kevin Groves, who’s also the main contractor for the ongoing restoration of the Tenement Museum, on Orchard Street, not far from where my great-grandparents and grandparents lived.)

It’s a dream space, with lots of bookshelves, a couch, an easy chair, a capacious desk, and mirable dictu, a view of the Hudson River and the Palisades.

I delighted and grateful to have this room of my own and the view of the Hudson Valley. But my writing hasn’t improved. I don’t write any faster or any better. I’m not sure what lesson in all this is. Certainly, I wouldn’t want to find myself in Solzhenitsyn’s predicament, or back at my old desk in Time Warner.

Still, I think it’s true for anyone serious about being a writer, if you can’t write in the place you want, then write in the place you are.

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WRITERS RULE

October 13, 2013

I’ve been brooding more than usual lately because I’m sailing in that Dead Sea of having a book about to come out and facing the daunting prospect of starting another. (“Some things in life get easier,” William Kennedy once told me, “but novel writing isn’t one of them.”) The more I think about it, the more I want to take a nap.

How, I wonder, did writing ever acquire an aura of romance and adventure? It’s lonely, isolating exasperating, a commitment of several years with no sure payoff (indeed, maybe a rejection) at the end. Yet for me the only thing more painful than writing is not writing.

“The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959,” which was bestowed me through the blessed benevolence of Joe Goodrich and Honor Molloy, is helping me navigate these troubled waters.

To a teacher in New Jersey who wrote him in 1946 asking for advice to give his pupils, Chandler sent this terse reply: “The people whom God intended to be writers find their own answers, and those who have to ask are impossible to help. They are merely people who think they want to be writers.”

Chandler is the enemy of illusions. He constantly stresses the hard work involved in writing. The writer’s job, as he makes clear, is to show up: “The important thing is that there be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try … But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Write or nothing …Two simple rules, a. you don’t have to write; b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.”

I had just read this when I stumbled on the late Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing.” Leonard was a terrific writer, and I agree with his rules (mostly). Yet if you follow them strictly, the danger is you’ll end up sounding like Leonard, and if you can’t develop a distinctive voice–a signature style–why try to be a writer in the first place?

I was once on a panel with a writing teacher who pontificated on his “10 Pillars (no mere rules for this professor) of Good Writing.” I listened with silent skepticism to the first few–“good writers write in complete sentences” (tell that to Joyce, Faulkner, et al.); “good writers know their audience” (writers can never be sure of who their audience is/will be. Á la Socrates, all they can they can know is themselves). I completely tuned out when he admonished that “good writers always start with an outline of what they want to say.”

I first ran into that rule in high school, and in 30-plus years as a speechwriter/novelist I’ve found it to be less a pillar than a brick wall. Devising and adhering to an outline is like trying to diagram a sentence before you write it. Writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, is storytelling. A story grows out of itself, reveals itself in the telling, unfolds truths and nuances that are invisible until, in his or her wandering and wondering, the writer discovers, unearths, stumbles upon them. Writing is exploration–finding, losing, re-finding your way–and not mere map reading.

When it came my turn to speak, I said that I didn’t know much about pillars but as a devotee of naps, I’d suggest four pillows for writers to sleep on: 1.) Write badly. Don’t let the editor in your head take over until you first get down on paper some version of what you want to say. All good writing is re-writing. 2.) Write on schedule. Have a set time when you show up at your desk/laptop to write. 3.) Be a fanatic. Never give up. When you reach what seems a dead end, brood on it. Yes, a mixed metaphor: brooding on dead ends. Yet in my experience, if you persist the egg will hatch and the dead end prove to be a pathway. The writing will reveal what you need to keep writing. 4.) If these rules don’t work for you, invent your own.

This morning I showed up dutifully at my desk. I tried to begin the new novel. I fiddled around, stared out the window, sighed, penned a sentence or two, crossed them out, pet the dog, fretted that maybe I don’t have another novel in me or–if I do–lack the stamina and drive to get it out, then I went for a jog and took a nap.

In the end, to paraphrase a writer who broke all the strictures, to thine own rules be true. A writer must rule over his/her own material, not be ruled by someone else’s rules.

For my part, I’ve found no rules or commandments or laws worth a damn other than this: do what you can today and get up tomorrow and try all over again.

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FROM THE DEPT. OF ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

October 9, 2013

Today, I met a friend for lunch (a wonderfully generous, entirely successful friend). He invited me to the 21 Club, one of the city’s true hoity-toity watering holes and prominently featured in the 1957 classic “Sweet Smell of Success,” with Burt Lancaster as Broadway gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis as press agent Sidney Falco, and a script by Clifford Odets. (If you haven’t seen it go to Netflix immediately.) Anyway, I’m very familiar with the area, having worked for 20 odd years (some years odder than others) at the Time & Life Building on 6th and 51st and the Time Warner Building at 75 Rock. At least I thought I was familiar until I reached 52nd and 6th and looked up at the street sign. Holy heart failure, Batman, this is what it says (and I’m not making this up): “Avenue of the Americas (a bullshit name if there ever was one!), 6th Av., WC Handy Place, WCBS Way/Proud Sponsor Of Bike New York, and Cousin Bruce Way.” On the east side of the street, there’s an additional name: “Swing Way.” My first thought was where the hell am I? My second: In a name-off gang bang like this, how did Donald Trump miss out on pasting up his name? The “Avenue of the Americas” moniker, of course, is one of the oldest tricks in the con game that defines Manhattan real estate: Tear down the El, drive out the working poor, and call 6th “Avenue of the Americas,” and 9th “Columbus,” and 4th “Park,” yada yada. But, really, come on, folks, even in New York there have to be limits, no? I mean six street signs on one lamppost? One cross section with six names: “Avenue of the Americas , 6th Av., WC Handy Place, WCBS Way/Proud Sponsor Of Bike New York, Cousin Bruce Way, and Swing Way”? (And, if you didn’t grow up in the city in the 60s, who the hell knows who Cousin Bruce is/was?) I mean, put yourself in the shoes of a tourist from Tasmania or Topeka who’s just arrived in New York and is standing on 6th Avenue (or, more accurately, The Boulevard of U.S. Intervention in Latin and Central America in the Interests of Supporting Dictatorships Friendly to American Corporations)  trying to figure out where the hell he/she is? Note to the next mayor: Let’s cut the bullshit and get back to basics. Jeez Louise, enough already, this town is confused enough as it is without sticking six names on one place.

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A New York Writer

September 18, 2013

Thanks to my brother-in-law, who works in a college down here in North Carolina, I did an interview this morning on local radio for my upcoming book. (Shameless and endless, this business of book pimping, but necessary.) The interview went okay, except for the fact the interviewer had never read a word I’ve written and kept referring to me as a “New York writer,” which he made sound as if it were an affectation or, worse, an affliction/infection. He said it so many times that I think I began to react defensively. (A bad way to respond, especially on radio. My wife says that I didn’t come across too badly, but I can’t rely on her opinion because it’s too tainted by kindness and concern for my feelings.) I said that I don’t like to be pigeonholed, that my novels have traveled far outside New York, that the principal concern of every writer is the human condition, yada yada. Now, in retrospect, I regret my reaction. I’m a New York writer in the sense that I believe it’s possible/necessary to search for the universal in the particular, that in the end we’re all parochial, all rooted in a particular time and place that shapes/shaped the geography of our brains, that we can/must find the connections to the shared core of the human experience in the place where we were/are/come to be. Yada, yada. How’s that for sounding defensive? Leave it at this: New York and its environs are the only home I’ve ever known. It is the repository of the bones of the only ancestors whose names are known to me. America is the land across the river. A promise. Ireland is the land left behind, a memory, even more for my children than for me. New York is a presence/the present, a place not of Pilgrims’ Pride but of immigrant struggle and ferocious hope. When I think of New York, I think of two lines from Seamus Heaney that a friend recently brought to my attention: “I had my existence. I was there. / Me in place and the place in me.” Which means, I guess, I’m a New York writer. Sue me.

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