It was a privilege and a pleasure to get to know novelist Thomas McGonigle while at the Times, and it’s been a privilege to keep knowing him ever since.
Recently, University of Notre Dame Press brought out his novel, St. Patrick’s Day: Another Day in Dublin, which is also the recipient of the 2016 Notre Dame Review Book Prize.
“McGonigle’s novel,” the prize committee said, “is a brilliant portrait of the uneasy alliance between the Irish and Irish Americans, the result of the centuries-old diaspora and immigration, which left unsettled the mysteries of origins and legacy.”
McGonigle is a member of literature’s world community. You discover that right away when you talk to him. Whether you’re in actual conversation or reading his blog, ABC of Reading, you find that he’s preoccupied with far more important issues than who is on the current bestsellers lists. Instead, he speaks freely and easily to you about Roberto Calasso, or Julian Rios, or Claude Simon, or some Bulgarian novelist whose name is difficult to pronounce as if they’re all neighbors living on the same street.
And, in sense, they all do live on the same street. So what did I do on this year’s observance of the venerable Irish saint?
I prepped this interview below for you, my beloveds, which presents Tom’s perspective on his novel and the process behind it, not to mention his larger concerns about the current state and future of literature.
***What was the genesis of your St. Patrick’s Day: Another Day in Dublin? Where does it begin?
All of my books begin with the moment when I saw a blonde girl putting her coat and books into a locker on the second floor of Patchogue High School in my senior year. I had been looking at a picture history of World War One and must have decided to write a story in which a soldier would think of the girl back home and this boy would die on November 6, 1918. I changed the girl’s last name with the addition of two letters. The story was published in The Red & Black, the student newspaper. I waited for Melinda to seek me out. She did not. I wrote a second story told this time from her viewpoint… this was published, and again she did not seek me out. I could say that the writing disease had taken hold of me then.
***And the novel? What was the inspiration behind it?
It begins for me —
but not, as the book opens, with me getting off the night ferry from Glasgow to Dublin in September 1964 to begin a year at University College, Dublin. Of course the connection to James Joyce instantly becomes apparent as I stayed my first night in a bed and breakfast on a street just down from Belvedere College (Joyce’s school) and then walked over to UCD and actually into Newman House where the great confrontation between Stephen and the priest occurs in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man… The practical outcome for me in meeting the chaplain was a nice room in the Opperman’s family residence in Orwell Park as the woman of the house had just called looking for a student to stay with them for a modest rent which would include the room, seven breakfasts in bed, and Sunday dinner–
the novel begins for me with the death of my father and the spending of the modest inheritance in a way he would have approved of: I sailed from New York first class on the QE2… but as the book begins I (or the central voice) am in the Russell Hotel looking down at the end or the beginning of the St Patrick’s Day parade (the book will conclude some pages later in the Corn Exchange on Poolbeg Street, another building also torn down). What happens between these two future ruins is the story of all the years of being in Dublin and all the lives encountered… a shade of that girl from the second floor of Patchogue High School re-appears in Dublin and forever turns away on Grafton Street…
***How would you describe your writing process?
The book could have easily been three times as long as its current 234 pages–so writing is a cutting away–all of my books are accumulations that I have allowed time to shape, to cut, to reframe. Anthony Burgess once told me that there is no reason why a healthy person could not write three novels a year (3 pages a day produces 900 pages divided by 3…with six weeks holiday…)
All of my published books (The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov, Going to Patchogue) and the books unpublished (Empty American Letters, Forget the Future, Just Like That, Nothing Doing, and Going and Coming to the End) are all very very long but begin to lose the un-essential with the passage of time…
Photo credit: Anna Saar
It seems far too obvious to see the ghost of James Joyce hovering over your novel — what other writers inspired you in composing this novel and in your other work?
Thomas Wolfe, James Thomson BV, Celine, Bernhard, Junger, Celan, Rios… the telephone directory, the Atlas of the World, my stamp collection…
St. Patrick’s Day shares common DNA with your Petkov and Patchogue novels — the structure of the narration, your interest in consciousness, your sense of irony and undercutting humor. Do you see these three novels, though about different places and different times, belonging to the same family?
All books to my way of thinking share DNA; they have to have a beginning, a middle and end…birth, life, death…the going to, the being in, the coming back from. Then of course there is time–our pathetic means of rationing out the unknown, the fictions we create with every time that we say an hour, a minute, a day, a month, a year. All fictions are just as past, present and future–all fictions are awaiting the fist into the face as it were.
What advice would you give to any writer striving to be serious in the age of books-soon-into-movies?
I have never understood the difference between the serious and the what… I do know that when I read of someone who has just gotten a six-figure deal for a book or even a million dollars or a huge movie deal, that here is another who has not written anything that will re-arrange–in Eliot’s phrase–the statues in the garden and that these “successful writers” have excluded themselves from that place reserved for, say, Thomas Bernhard, Ivan Turgenev, Hannah Green, Louis Ferdinand Celine, Hal Bennett, E. M. Cioran.
In mentioning Cioran I want to remind one that Cioran argued that F. Scott Fitzgerald became a writer only when he wrote The Crack-Up. Before that, he was merely successful, and since The Great Gatsby has become a required high school assignment, can there be any fate worse than that?
On a final note: Years ago I had a chat with Jorge Luis Borges when he came to Columbia University and, with my last name, we fell into talking about Joyce and could only agree that two poems of Joyce’s– “Ecce Puer” and the wonderful lyric from Chamber Music “Lean out of the window,/Goldenhair,/ I heard you singing/A merry air– were more memorable than that book of Dublin gossip…
But now, when I look back upon my book and have this conversation with Borges in mind, I realize that I have included my own short poem on page 45/46 which is my true claim by which to overcome death, to gain a place in a future scrapbook of literature (such as the Greek Anthology) where only a single lyric is remembered…
I wish I had recited my little poem to Borges, and so I do it in mind right now :
SHORT THOUGHT ON DEATH
Bright white bird COME
for black paradise.