Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Slainte! to Damian McNicholl

I've recently finished a remarkable book called A Son Called Gabriel by an Irish-American author named Damian McNicholl. It's newly available in paperback, was a finalist for the Lambda Award, and was a Book Sense Pick of the Year. (Image leads to the online ordering page.)

Touching, tough, and tender, A Son Called Gabriel is a must-read. Young Gabriel Harkin lives in Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 70s, the times known as "The Troubles." As his life moves forward, he realizes he's not like other boys... devastating for him, as he comes from a strict Catholic family. Along with the outer turmoil of The Troubles, the reader follows Gabriel's sexual awakening as he wrestles with the fact that he is gay.

From the older boy who seduces him with sex games to the tanned and elegant man he admires on the beach, from the priest who abuses him in the classroom to the stranger that Gabriel himself propositions, our hearts beat and break in tandem with Gabriel's as he comes to terms with his sexuality. How can his family ever accept him? Gabriel wonders. His church?

Gabriel tries many times to "change," always unsuccessfully. Will he ever have the courage to tell his family the truth? And what will happen when Gabriel's Uncle Brendan, also a priest, reveals his own deep secret, one that McNicholl holds masterfully until the book's surprising, yet inevitable conclusion? The novel's ending doesn't tie up things neatly, but rather haunts the reader for days afterward.

The writing is lyrical and the dialogue is spot-on, with dry humor and wit. Gabriel Harkin's is a universal story, not just a gay story. There's a reason the Irish are known as great storytellers, and McNicholl's debut adds another notch in the belt of Irish writers everywhere.

The author, Damian McNicholl, agreed to answer some interview questions for the site! The interview appears below.

DMCN: First, Martha, thank you for inviting me to your blog to answer your questions.

MO'C: It's my pleasure, Damian. Let's get started, shall we? {{pours two pints of Guinness, hands one to Damian}} First of all, Slainte! to you and your remarkable book. A Son Called Gabriel seems to beg for a sequel. Have you thought about exploring Gabriel's adult life in another novel?

DMCN: I do intend to write a sequel but am not ready to do so yet. I've just finished a second novel entitled UNUSUAL STEPS which is a dark comedy set in London and have now commenced a novel set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I found I just needed to get away from writing about Ireland for a while. But after I've written this American set novel, I feel sure Gabriel's adult voice will speak to me and I'll start his sequel. That's the beauty of sequels; they don't have to be written consecutively.

MO'C: Ireland has been dealing with issues of identity and oppression for hundreds of years. What do you feel the novel gains by having Gabriel's inner turmoil reflected by the political and social climate of Northern Ireland at the time?

DMCN: Ireland has indeed been dealing with these issues for a long time. I definitely intended the conflicts to be presented in parallel--the inner conflict of a young Irish boy as he grows to maturity and the wider, external conflict taking place in his world both in relation to ubiquitous sectarianism and the social conservatism in his rural Catholic community. I wanted this because I just didn't want to write a coming-of age novel. I wanted the novel to be much wider and felt the parallel conflicts would add depth and richness to the story, and that they would help the reader get a deeper understanding of Gabriel's life and circumstances.

MO'C: Did you have to return to Northern Ireland in order to do research or is much of the atmosphere derived from memory? How do you feel Northern Ireland has changed since Gabriel's time?

DMCN: A combination of both, really. I read voraciously about Northern Ireland for an earlier, unpublished novel I'd written. (That's why I said earlier that I needed to quit writing about Ireland for a while.) And, as my parents and siblings and their families live over there, I travel to Northern Ireland often which allows me to reacquaint myself with the dialect, culture and landscape.

It's changed in that the period of violence known as THE TROUBLES--which includes the years covered by the novel--has ended, albeitunofficially, and the political parties representing the various religions and cultures are trying to work together. I was brought up Roman Catholic and my siblings are really hoping politicians from both sides can negotiate and eventually form a stable and lasting government that will rule from Stormont, the seat of the Northern Irish parliament. My siblings are hopeful and anxious to co-exist in peace with their Protestant neighbors (indeed have many Protestant friends) and do notwant things to backslide to the days when opportunities for Catholics were negligible. Unfortunately, there is one extremist party on the Protestant side--they're our Christian Right, if you will--that does not want to be in government with Sinn Fein (which is the largest party representing Catholics) and are hell-bent on turning back the clock to the days of ruling the province as their Protestant birthright. But the clock can't be turned back: moderates on both sides are economically better off and recognize how pointless it is to divide the people and country.

MO'C: I know many Irish and Irish-American people because I'm married to the son of Irish immigrants. And the dialogue in A SON CALLED GABRIEL rings uncannily true. There's a whole incredible subtext, in many cases. For instance, a conversation about whether to purchase a new pair of shoes is really about the decades long feud between a pair of cousins and there's a huge discrepancy between what is SAID and what is MEANT. Do you find this to be the case as well and how were you able to pull off such genuine dialogue?

DMCN: Thank you. I think subtext is so important in writing. I hate things that are too overt in novels, don't you? I feel subtext allows the reader to engage more with the story as it unfolds, to really reach into the character's heads, to identify with their actions and thoughts...to become them at times, if you like.

With regards to the dialogue, I didn't have to think about that to a huge degree as it came pretty spontaneously. I'm particularly happy with how Gabriel's mother turned out. She's a lioness and quick-tempered and her expressions are so singularly Northern Irish, which is very different to what people associate as being Irish in the States. Here, Irish speech is always identified with the Southern Irish brogue. We, Northerners, tend to get lumped in with the Scottish, but the speech is quite different.

Also, I think it was easy because I'm born and schooled in Northern Ireland and still speak with an Ulster accent, although one that's modified because I went to university in Wales. So I remember all the great turns-of-phrase and idioms and stuff. As an aside, my accent had to change when I went off to law school because some of the students from England who were in my tutorial classes used to tease me about it; they couldn't understand a word I was saying...and, more importantly, neither could the lecturers. So I figured it was either change the accent a bit or fail law school.

MO'C: My novel also deals with young people and I found the writing process to be incredibly emotional, as I was reminded of my own past. Did you find writing A SON CALLED GABRIEL pulled up a number of emotions about growing up?

DMCN: Yes, our novels are very similar in that respect.

Writing this was very emotional for me both because I am an emotional person and also because I regard the novel as fiction rooted in experience. In other words, some of Gabriel's experiences, I have experienced, and I took these and developed them for the purposes of the plot. On some occasions during the writing, particularly if I hadn't read a section for a while and then reread it, I found myself bawling or laughing, etc. But the process was cathartic and I regarded my emotional outpourings as a very good thing.

MO'C: How long did it take you to write this book?

DMCN: The first draft went very quickly and only took six months. But then, as you know as well I'm sure, come the redrafts and editing which took another year-and-a-half. So all in all it took close to two years before I felt it was polished enough to send to agents.

MO'C: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

DMCN: Believe in yourself, believe in your writing, write the best book you can, and never give up on your dream of seeing it published once it starts doing the rounds. There are lots of great books that were turned down by publishers before they found the right house.

Thank you so much for spending time on my blog today, Damian! And for my readers, stop by Damian's site or blog if you can, and do try to get your hands on this book. There's also another really intriguing interview with Damian on Scott Esposito's site, Conversational Reading, as well.

I'll leave you with my favorite Irish blessing:

May those who love us, love us.
And those that don't love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn't turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles.
So we'll know them by their limping.