If you are an unknown author trying to get a first novel published, it helps to make your protagonist a bit of an outlier -- an undiagnosed bipolar Amish vampire, say. But a quiet tale that turns on the fortunes and misfortunes of the small group of ostensibly normal people who inhabit a short, suburban cul-de-sac? My hat is off to Dennis Mahoney for successfully ushering to market his beguiling debut novel, "Fellow Mortals."
By Dennis Mahoney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($15 paperback original).
A small, tight, deftly rendered tale, "Fellow Mortals" is the story of how a deadly fire on peaceable, wooded Arcadia Street changes the lives of the people (and one dog) touched by the fire. We watch as the denizens of this otherwise ordinary neighborhood interact after the fact, carrying their specific burdens of anger, grief, guilt, fear, hope and more.
It is Henry, Arcadia Street's affable mailman, who accidentally caused the fire. As a result, 45-year-old Henry and his pretty wife, Ava, take into their home Nan and Joan, two relentlessly endearing elderly sisters whom they barely know, who lost their home in the fire. Sam is the devastated young artisan who retreats into the woods to escape the world and carve his heart out in the trees. Peg is the domineering head of the Carmichael family who fears nothing so much as losing control of any single variable that might affect her family. And finally, Billy and Sheri, the unhappily married young couple, burn like a fuse throughout the story, a bomb that will eventually go off.
With these few sharply drawn characters, Mr. Mahoney has crafted a complete universe populated by people who feel real, living lives that feel real, and though the word "quiet" does keep coming to mind -- this isn't some herky-jerky ride, this isn't Stephen King -- the pleasures of this novel are distinct, if hard to articulate.
The beautiful parts of "Fellow Mortals" are about forgiveness and healing, about relationships forged under duress, about love and what that looks like, even, and most especially, when life gets hard and complicated. And also about a kind of opening up -- to other people's imperfections, to their shortcomings, and strengths, and allowing other people, so annoyingly imperfect, into our lives when it feels like the very last thing that we might want.
In his need to make amends to those harmed by the fire, Henry the mailman ignores every obstacle people throw up in his path, barreling forward like a boundlessly energetic puppy as he tries to reach out. Almost unbearably well-meaning, he resembles no one so much as his dog, Wing (short for Wingnut), one of literature's great dogs.
In fact, it's worth the price of admission just to hear the author briefly inhabit Wingnut's head, giving us the mutt's point of view. Here's Wing thinking about one of the elderly sisters who lives with them now: "He's gotten used to Nan, who likes him more than anyone expected, Nan herself included. She sneaks him toast dipped in coffee, compliments his smile. All Wing wants to do is see people happy. He smells the hamper and the hair dryer, comforting and warm, and can't imagine why the house feels so bad."
Mr. Mahoney's exquisite observations extend to humans, as well. Sam and Henry have been working together all day in the woods on a project for Sam, who is grieving the loss of a loved one. It's about 6 in the evening when Henry says he has to leave. "My wife," Henry says, by way of explanation. At which point Sam takes in the particular light of the sun through the trees and thinks to himself, "It's the light of going home for ordinary people." And in that way, Mr. Mahoney relies on the angle of the sun to communicate how completely outside the parameters of ordinary life one feels on losing a loved one. Even the laws of nature that previously governed your existence don't necessarily apply.
In sum, the aptly named "Fellow Mortals" is about how we're all in this together, actors on the stage with life and death, capricious as they are. We can harm one another, we can heal one another, we can retreat, all alone, into the woods -- the choice is ours, the outcome always uncertain.
An interview with Dennis Mahoney
Judy Wertheimer spoke recently over Skype with Dennis Mahoney from his home in Troy, New York as Winter Storm Nemo approached. Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity.
Judy Wertheimer: I apologize for how I sound because I'm not really feeling a hundred percent, but hopefully my brain will still be functioning sufficiently.
Dennis Mahoney: No, that's quite all right. I had my book signing locally last night so my brain is still processing all of that.
JW: Oh, how fun was that?
DM: It was great. People have been asking me all week, "Is it surreal to see your name on a book?" And you know, I've had 16 months since the book deal. I've been adapting to it along the way. Last night was a surreal moment when it was just everyone from high school all the way up through my work career. A strange combination of people ... so it was really fun and very, very weird.
JW: Well, congratulations.
DM: Thank you.
JW: Well, first, I really liked your book. I only review books that I like because I think it's bad karma to say bad things about other people's novels because I'm writing one myself.
DM: Well thank you. ... I had a horrible experience-it was about four, five years ago maybe longer, I did just a few music reviews for Paste Magazine and I had to quit almost right away. I just told them-I mean, it was a freelance thing. I just said I can't do this anymore. I had to shoot down a couple of artists that I had grown up liking and they were putting out these bad late career albums. One of them was Alice Cooper. I always liked Alice.
DM: They gave me 200 words to write a bad review. And I'm thinking, It's so disrespectful. Two hundred words. The guy worked on it for half a year, and I'm gonna have to shoot it down. I can't do this.
JW: ... So where am I catching you right now anyway? Are you home?
DM: I am home.
JW: Where's home?
DM: Troy, New York, which is near Albany, New York, the capital.
JW: And you're waiting for snow.
DM: Yes we are. It looks like a little over a foot here. Not the worst of the worst, but pretty solid. I mean, we've had a ridiculous five winters or so with almost nothing. ...
JW: So I'm wondering, first, what was the genesis of this story? Was there any one thing or several things that sent you down this road?
DM: That's a pretty easy one to answer. I started with Henry Cooper, the main character, who was based on a minor character in the previous novel I had written that never really worked out, but I had loved that character and he seemed to be the perfect protagonist for a novel. He was very lovably optimistic and active and outgoing and unstoppably so. The kind of guy who would really drive a story as opposed to having the story drive him.
And I wanted to put him into a horrible predicament, preferably one that he had created himself, and watch him squirm and really test his optimism. Really test this basically decent man's heart. And I spent a while kicking ideas around, maybe almost a month, really waiting for the right thing to hit and then one day I got the fire [idea] and I decided that seems to be the one that would pull a whole community into a story. And I thought I could run 300 pages with that one. So the minute it hit I knew I had it and I wrote it right down and starting writing almost right away.
JW: Why did you decide not to locate it in a particular city, but to make it in a generic suburb instead?
DM: That's an interesting question. Yeah, Waterbury is similar to the Simpson's Springfield. It could be anywhere-town. I wasn't that interested in covering any particular place. I wanted it to have a slightly universal feel. So a small neighborhood, it seemed to be the best fit. I'm attracted to stories that allow the characters to interact as much as possible without a whole lot of extra complications. That way I can really zero in on the emotions. I was greatly relieved when I found an actual explanation of how Henry would not be legally in trouble from that fire, how he would get out of a police investigation. I wanted the guilt to fall straight on him and to keep the story very intimate and very human. You know, you don't want to turn everything into a police procedural necessarily.
JW: I'm wondering if you think there is anything unique to the suburbs that allowed for that story to unfold the way that it did as opposed to in an urban or a rural setting.
DM: I really didn't, except that, in a way, it would put it in a bit more of a bubble. If it happened in the city, there would be more people immediately in the presence of that fire and I wanted to just enclose that little area. It might have worked in the city. I knew that I wanted to put Sam in the woods so I needed something that was at least close to nature. So a city wouldn't have worked in that sense.
DM: I had written a number of books in this made-up Waterbury town as well. It just became a place I've gone to in the past. And it was kind of waiting there for me. I wasn't that obsessed with setting that I needed it to be a big deal. I almost wanted to just let the setting happen itself so I could get straight to the characters. ... [It's] vaguely in the northeast somewhere. ... New Verhampshire, I've called it before.
JW: I completely fell in love with Wingnut, Henry's dog, and I'm wondering where he came from and what made you decide to get inside his head and give us his point of view.
DM: This is interesting. I wrote this book and really finished the bulk of it at least two years ago. And at the time, my wife and I, we've had a cat as long as I've known my wife, and we'll be married 15 years this May. So we had a 17- or 18-year-old cat who had been with us the whole time and he just died this year. And we went out and got a rescue dog who quite accidentally turned out to be unbelievably like Wingnut in person.
DM: So our dog now-I had to read parts of the book recently and I thought, "My gosh! I wrote our dog into this two years ago." It's rather remarkable, the similarities. I've always been a dog person. The cat we had was the first one I ever really was close to and encountered, and he made me love cats in general. But, I was interested in having a dog. It seemed like the right pet for Henry. And the dog seemed to also be a mirror of Henry. So in scenes where Henry wasn't necessarily present, Wingnut in a way could speak for him emotionally. It offered a different way into that character. And once I realized I was writing the point of view of every character in the book, virtually, I wanted to give some credit to the dog as well.
DM: I thought he would be an interesting outside eye on [Henry and Ava's] marriage and on the scenes in the woods. And it was just a different way of assessing the emotions in various scenes-his reaction to Sam in a couple different ways in those early encounters. He reacted in a way that Henry did not, more aggressively, for example, and then showed Henry's forgiveness as well once they made up.
JW: Well I loved him. And I'm hearing how you talk about writing and I'm wondering if you studied writing formally anywhere. Did you get an MFA?
DM: I did not. I went to the College of St. Rose in Albany and had a wonderful four years. I have a BA in English. They just began an MFA program I believe in the last year. So they didn't have it as an option at the time and very few writing classes. It was mostly the study of literature and it was primarily with the idea you would go on and teach. I just always-I didn't have the teaching bug and I wanted to be a writer, so I had almost no practical plan when I graduated from school. I didn't know what to do with my English degree. ... One major fiction professor at the college came to my signing last night and I get to do a reading with her in a month at the college, so that's been really fun, but almost no training, which could explain why it took me to age 38 to get a first novel published. It may have sped the process a little if I had been a bit more focused and directed early on.
JW: Well, actually that brings me to my next question, because this struck me as the kind of book that it would be almost impossible [for an unknown author] to get published anymore by a mainstream publisher, only because there's nothing overly loud or showy about it, there's no big hook or crazy location, you're not Kim Kardashian, but here you are. And so I'm wondering, how do you explain that?
DM: [Farrar, Straus and Giroux] has a reputation for being one of those houses. And if they believe in a book, they will get behind it. The best thing I can say about FSG's treatment of me is that they have not treated me like a little fish, even though I know I am one amongst their roster of authors. My editor has been a dream. Every stereotype and bad cliche you hear about publishing has been completely reversed. FSG has done everything perfectly.
DM: I've had no wrinkles. They've kept me in the loop at every turn. I had a beautiful editing relationship with my editor, Emily Bell, and she believed in the book. We had talked about it through email, and she had originally passed on the manuscript but had such good ideas or reasons why, I immediately did a rewrite and sent it back to her. I had agreed with her concerns and from there it really worked out.
JW: Do you have an agent?
DM: I do have an agent. It was a strange story. I had an agent who originally had submitted to FSG. Right in the middle of that process, that agent retired from the business and moved to begin her own family and focus on her own fiction writing. So I was suddenly without an agent, without a book deal. So I got very lucky in that I made contact with that editor again. And Emily got me the deal and then I got the agent after the fact.
JW: Wow! Lucky agent!
DM: Yes. I was able to deliver him a deal. So that worked out well.
JW: Are you writing full time now?
DM: I am. I'm a stay-at-home dad. And for a while I was doing freelance copywriting, and then when that dried up, I knew I was getting ... I was hoping I was getting close enough to a book deal where I thought I'd see it through.
And at this point, since things have gone pretty well, I'm focusing on the next book very hard and hoping to get that one done this year.
JW: Well, you know, honestly I don't have any more questions for you.
DM: OK. Was that good?
JW: Yeah, it was perfect.
Judy Wertheimer, a writer living in Squirrel Hill, reviews first novels for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com).