A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Summer 2019 / VOL. 19 ISSUE 2
Now let's have Mooney himself discourse a bit about his Irishness, about growing old and about the intricacies of his writing process:
IAP: What’s your Irish heritage? Are there Irish on both sides of your family. Where did they originate?
DM: My family is all Irish. Mam and Dad are both from Limerick. Mam’s from Garryowen and Dad’s from Farranshone. In fact, all of their parents (including the two Grandad’s who inspired The Great Unexpected) are from Limerick, too. A gang of my Nana Mooney’s family moved to the U.S., sometime in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s.
She was originally a Clancy and her family had been Abbey fishermen in Limerick. Uncle Bill (who was a chief petty officer on a minesweeper during World War II) and Uncle Gerry both ended up living in the Bronx. Uncle Jack (an Army captain during WWII) settled in California. Our whole family, me included, are still very close with their kids and extended families. It’s a great reason to head for City Island in New York. I love that place.
IAP: Did your family celebrate its Irishness much when you were growing up? If so, how?
DM: Being born and raised here that’s something I probably take for granted. I love watching how well received St Patrick’s Day is worldwide and watching the diaspora get involved in Irish events and Irish interests abroad. I remember watching Rugby World Cup games (I’m from Limerick, rugby is a religion here), in a bar in Manhattan and I think it might have been more fun than going to the game itself.
There’s something quite special about that moment when Irish people living abroad come together to celebrate that shared thing between them. As I say, I’m probably guilty of taking certain aspects of Irishness for granted, but little moments like those, away from home but still feeling that strong sense of community, they’re reminders that Irishness is a thing without borders.
IAP: What is it like growing up in Ireland?
DM: Growing up here means that certain things I almost definitely take for granted. They’re everyday things to me. Thanks to that enduring relationship between our side of the family over here and the Clancys who had settled in the States, and my fiancé’s family who are from Maine, there are certain opportunities to sort of see Ireland through someone else’s eyes and that’s always an interesting moment. Seeing their reactions to things that I take for granted or consider to be everyday or humdrum renews and refreshes my own ideas of where I’m from. It’s also pretty hilarious to watch first-time visitors drinking Guinness here. It’s like a whole different drink.
IAP: The Irish seem to gravitate toward the arts, particularly creative writing. Do you think this is the case? How so?
DM: I once did a reading at the Irish American Writers and Artists Association in New York. First thing that struck me was the fact that there was a need for such an association probably says a lot about the quantity of Irish artists based in New York and all across the US. The quality on offer that day, and the enthusiasm with which everyone took to their craft was extraordinary and wonderful to see.
There also seems to be a moment happening in literature for Irish people right now. Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Normal People are prime examples but you could point to several. Winnie Li’s Dark Chapter, Joseph O’Connor’s continued worldwide success with Shadowplay, Louise O’Neill, John Boyne, Anna Burns.
Irish writers are taking a place, center stage globally for writing. It’s a great thing to see, because, as you say, there is a certain gravitational pull towards writing for Irish people. Don’t know where it comes from, but I’m delighted that the link is acknowledged and even more delighted to see Irish authors doing well on a huge scale.
IAP: Do you have any favorite Irish authors? What makes a great Irish writer?
DM: Where to even start? I have so many. Sarah Moore Fitzgerald and Donal Ryan are names people might recognize and I love their work. They’re both inspirational to me, as writers and as people, to be honest. I have favorites you’ve probably not heard of though, writers I know still trying to break out. It’s only a matter of time for them, because the quality of their work is astonishing. Grainne O’Brien, Adam Chappell, Paul Grealish to name a few. My favourite thing about the community of Irish writers tends to be how incredibly supportive and encouraging they are. Me Myself and Them (my first novel) and The Great Unexpected probably don’t happen without that support and constant encouragement.
As for what makes a great Irish writer? That’s difficult to say. A lot of Irish writers convey such a powerful sense of place that you can feel it in their work, it permeates the characters. That sense of place sort of seeps into the characters, informing them and twisting them about a little. For others, it’s a powerful sense of identity within the characters, an opposition to the last point about place, these powerful characters bend the place to them and their needs. I think both of those things, not always at the same time, shine through in the work of Irish writers.
IAP: Were your folks and/or siblings in the arts? How did your family encourage your writing?
DM: No, we’re not a very artsy family. I think we’ve all got a bit of creativity in us, and most of us love to sing, but by and large we’re not artsy. That being said I’ve never wanted for or lacked encouragement. I’m involved in amateur theatre and filmmaking as well as writing novels, and I can honestly say that no matter what project I’m working on, I’ve always had plenty of support and encouragement from both my parents and from my brother and my two sisters. In fact, it’s not just them, my entire extended family have been amazing too. It’s a great family to be a part of.
IAP: What newspaper ran your first fiction piece? What was the theme of your story? Did you have a good editor.
DM: Ha-ha. My first fiction piece was written for The Parteen Screamer, which was a fully child-run and child-operated newspaper which was run out of Eva Ferguson’s (childhood friend) living room. I think we photocopied the whole thing on her dad’s work photocopier. My first piece was what would now be classed as historical fiction, I suppose. It was about Tutankhamun the Egyptian Prince. I think. I was 10-years-old at the time so that’s an entire quarter of a century ago. Its funny to look back on it now.
And it’s nice to know that I’m not kidding myself when I say I’ve always wanted to do this. Other than that, I’ve only ever written short fiction for Silver Apples, an online literary magazine. I have so many ideas for short fiction and one day I’m going to sit down and start writing them, but there always seems to be another novel to be working on. And I can’t work on two projects at once. I’m extremely single-minded like that.
IAP: What was your reaction to being called “a blindingly talented new writer” by Grant Ginder. Is he spot on?
DM: I don’t take compliments well so my first reaction was to sort of blush and hope that no one was looking. They weren’t. It’s really an amazing feeling to get praise like that from celebrated writers. Impostor syndrome is something that I, like a lot of other writers, deal with fairly regularly. So, when you throw something out into the world and it comes back with that kind of praise and consideration it helps with that, and it helps you to own your own success, however huge or modest it may be. It’s just a nice thing when you’ve someone as accomplished as Grant Ginder paying you compliments I suppose.
IAP: What’s your educational background?
DM: I went to Mary Immaculate College in Limerick in Ireland. I studied Philosophy and English Literature and I absolutely loved it. I was not prepared for real life in the immediate aftermath of college. I had gotten involved there too. The drama society and the student radio station in particular were favorites of mine so when the local station Live 95 started looking for young student voices for newsreading and reporting I absolutely jumped at that. Which is why I spent the first couple of years out of college being a journalist. Didn’t study it or anything, but I’ve been lucky to have the people around me that I have. Joe Nash and John Keogh were both excellent bosses, leaders and teachers and the journalists I worked with were brilliant too. Petula Martyn, David Hurley, Paraic Gallagher, Tara Duggan to name just a few of them. Great people to learn from.
IAP: Did you write much fiction while in school, instead of writing assigned physics research tomes for class?
DM: I wrote barely any fiction. And most of the stuff that I did write was really daft, surreal, off-the-wall stuff that was only intended for friends to ever read. I had a lot of fun writing it, and it was a nice thing to do to keep me in practice, scratch a proverbial itch if you like, but most of my writing was academic or political. I wrote election blogs whenever elections came around. Daft little pieces really.
To be honest I didn’t know enough about what I was writing to be commenting, but I got to make a lot of jokes and friends and family enjoyed them. Silly as they were. It took being starved of really creative writing for me to finally sit down and write the novel I’d been threatening to write for so long. A part of me regrets that I didn’t do more sooner, but things turned out the way they turned out I suppose. No use crying over split milk and all that.
IAP: What’s your writing process. Wait for a muse or crank away? Who brings sandwiches when you are on a writing jag?
DM: I need hours at a time. Four, maybe five. I can’t get anything done in an hour or two. My brain is one of those old laptops; Takes an hour just to spool up and get all the various programs running. After that I start to get really into the writing in hour three or four and by the time I’ve five or so hours done I might have 5,000 words. Because I need all that time, I usually do my writing at home.
Christine (my fiancé) got me a lovely little desk to work at as publication gift for Me Myself and Them. Might have also been done to get me out of the living room and out of the way, but either way I love it. The spare room gets whatever sunshine we have in the evenings, so the cat often comes in to keep me company, sprawls out on the bed behind the desk (after he’s walked across the keyboard a few times) and we just sit in there and get the writing done.
That being said, sometimes I go a few days or maybe a week where the mood to write is constantly on me, in which case I’ll take my laptop everywhere and I’ll write anywhere. I love when that happens. Feels like every sentence is good, and the words just fall out of me. It’s a brilliant, but all too rare feeling.
IAP: Do you have a friend or significant other who offers editorial advice? Do you listen to them?
DM: I’m running out of limbs to owe to Alex Dunne. She’s an incredible editor, a brilliant eye for books and story, a master of the compliment sandwich and a good friend. Her input into both Me Myself and Them and The Great Unexpected cannot be overstated. I don’t think I’ll ever write anything without her casting her eye over it first and that’s not an exaggeration. I’ve been really lucky with a lot of the people I’ve encountered in my life and she’s a prime example of that. She’s brilliant and I’m blessed to know her.
IAP: What is the hardest part of being a professional writer? Was this on your career bucket list as a kid? How does writing fit into you being an air traffic controller? How do you find the time?
DM: The hardest part of being a professional writer is all the damn writing you have to keep doing. It’s never ending. I’m just kidding. I love it. It’s deeply frustrating at times and when the mood or the creativity escapes you it’s almost frightening how isolating and weirdly unpleasant that can be, but I love telling stories and I love watching characters take shape before me and reveal themselves to the reader.
My job as an air traffic controller is actually quite helpful. Shift work is a godsend to me. I don’t think I could do this thing without those hours being the way they are, which is to say all over the place and scattered. Having some afternoons off, some weekdays, random Monday mornings. It all helps. I briefly worked 9-5 earlier this year as an instructor and I was never less productive as a writer. I think I need that shift work. I don’t see how I’d be able to finish a novel if I was working regular hours.
IAP: You double as an air traffic controller. Where do you work?
DM: I work at the en-route control centre in Balleycasey, just outside Shannon Airport in Ireland. It’s a great place to work.
IAP: What films have you written/produced? Where are your films screened? Is scripting more fun than novel writing?
DM: So, I’ve written two shorts. One was called The Apparel and it was about a very posh man who has to move into emergency accommodation after his wife kicks him out of the family home. Concerned with keeping up all kind of appearances, he dresses how he believes “the other half” dress for when he’s in his shelter, but drags a suitcase of fancy clothes to change into as he’s making his way to work daily.
I loved that little script. It was screened on the Irish national broadcaster RTE a few years back. The other short I’ve written is called Squawk 7700. It’s an air traffic control film and we just wrapped on shooting it a few weeks ago. So we’re in post-production now. I think we’ve got a nice little movie on our hands but it’s hard to tell at the moment. Like I say, it’s still in its early stages. I’ve written a couple of feature- length scripts too. But they were terrible.
There’s a weird freedom in how narrow you have to be writing scripts. A novel can be infinite words long and any size, but generally speaking, your standard feature won’t be over two hours, which means that you do so much chopping and cutting and every word must own its place. It’s paradoxical to say it but I love the freedom that gives you. Freedom from choice I suppose. I’ll always prefer writing novels (I hope) but I’ll probably never stop writing scripts. Even if they are terrible.
For Two Old Guys with Creaky Bones, Shaking Things Up Is the Way to Go
By: Martin Russell
The Irish American Post Book Editor
Dan Mooney’s latest novel, The Great Unexpected, focuses on two Odd Couple codgers who find themselves as roommates in an Irish care center. Stuck there for too long, ‘inmate’ Joel is grump, missing not just his late wife but the freedom of being young. But rakish Frank unexpectedly arrives to share bedroom space and proceeds to upend the lives of just about every oldster in the joint.
Mooney’s tale of these two auld fellas who both yearn to escape -- not just their live-in facility but their age -- is serious, poignant, funny and gripping from beginning to end. Through Joel and Frank, Mooney emphasizes that where there is spunk, there is life.
Mooney, from good Limerick stock, writes flawlessly of what initially starts as a fragile relationship, but one that grows into a strong friendship. This might seem like an easy task, yet like life itself, the work of authorship is always harder than it first appears. This doesn’t deter Mooney; his story comes together in grand fashion, making for one of the best summer reads this year.
I remember, even though I was quite little, after he died people kept saying what a blessing it was, because it was better for him to die than to have suffer the loss of independence that he needed. Like that sense of independence wasn’t one facet of his personality, it was a deeply embedded part of him and to take it away was literally a fate worse than death to him. That has always stayed with me. The idea of that profound need for independence.
The other thing was my Granda Joe’s death. Joe Keane was charmer. He’d an easy way about him and I remember him always smiling. He died when I was about 16. The manner of his death was so sudden that it still frightens me. He was sitting in his bed in a nursing home just outside Limerick. One of the staff came in to ask him if he wanted a cup of tea. He said yes. She left to make it. He was dead when she came back. Just like that. She couldn’t have been gone for more than two minutes. He had been fine. Then he was gone.
I think both of those moments really inform the story, they act as agents for me in the story, pushing it forward. At some level those two moment are the entire story of this book. That’s why it’s dedicated to DP and Joe.
IAP: Do you find old folks generally funny and uplifting?
DM: There are two bars in Limerick that I particularly like to have a pint in. Austin Quinlavin’s on Hyde Road and Charlie Malone’s on Wolfe Tone Street. Between the two of them there are a number of pensioners and older ladies and gents who I’m glad to call my friends. I think most of them would punch me in the head if I announced that I found them “funny and uplifting”.
IAP: Do you ever think about becoming an aging writer? What's your latest age, a figure that you admit to?
DM: I used to read a lot of Gemmell and Eddings when I was a younger lad. I can’t remember which of them said it, but there was a quote from one of them that suggested that they’d be writing until the coffin was lowered into the grave. I like to think that’ll be me too. Maybe some day the stories will dry up and I’ll go to my ideas folder and find it empty but I hope that I’ll go until that happens and I’ll always hope that folder will stay full.
IAP: What makes good comedy writing? How can you make dark humor work well without being gloomy?
DM: I’m so reluctant to answer that, because it’s such a subjective thing. What’s funny for some isn’t funny for others and what jokes work or don’t work is often a matter of timing or context so it’s such a difficult thing to put your finger on. That being said… here I go… I think timing is everything, especially in a dark comedy.
Given how dark comedies work, there’s a lot of doom and gloom and finding a perfect gap to stick in a joke that mirrors or parodies that darkness can get a big laugh that otherwise might have been only kind of funny. Finding that moment when the reader is absorbed in the character’s personal struggles and puncturing that with a joke is a very satisfying moment.
Also, context is everything. Dick jokes aren’t that funny, until they are. When the joke, whatever it might be is so utterly incongruous with the character, or so completely out of place, the humour, however daft it might be is amplified. Reeling off joke after joke is dull, but finding one joke that in the moment, for that character, in that place, lands is key to making it work.
I think. Again, I’m loathe to say any of this with any kind of certainty because of the nature of how subjective humour is.
IAP: When not writing, what do you do to relax – bowl? Walk the dog? Raise goldfish?
DM: I love to read, I love music, and I’m a cinephile. Christine and I both are. I’ll make some dinner and the two of us will sit down and watch movies all night. That’s a regular evening for us. I’m also a sports nut and there’s pretty much no sport I won’t take an interest in. Rugby is top of the pile for me, so I’ll schedule no writing when there’s a Young Munsters or a Munster match I can be watching. I love tabletop games- Battletech, Pandemic, X-Wing, Dungeons and Dragons and things like that. I’ve got some excellently nerdy friends who are into that stuff too. I like having those kind of game nights with a few beers and something to eat.
IAP: Are you a Guinness man, as are many Mooneys. Or a Jameson's sipper?
DM: A lot from Column A, a little from Column B.
IAP: Are you working on another piece? Fiction? Nonfiction? How many writing jobs can you juggle at one time?
DM: I have to do one job at a time. It’s always been the way with me. A sort of singlemindedness of purpose. A dog with a bone kind of thing. I’m almost finished the first draft of my third novel. I’m hoping to have it done by the end of July. I’ve nothing signed, contract wise for it, but there’s been some interest already so I’ll get that done and see what happens after it’s finished. I’ve several ideas for number four and they’re exciting and unusual, which is sort of my thing ,I think, so I’m keen to get started on them, which is excellent motivation to get the third one finished. Hopefully that one will find its way Stateside too.
IAP: Do you any editorial or personal suggestions for other bitingly funny new novelists, or those who hope to be?
DM: I have the same piece of advice now as always. Write. And remember: finished is better than perfect. I meet some many writers who tell me their great ideas and ask for help but they don’t sit down to write. I often wonder are they looking for some kind of magical shortcut to novel writing. There isn’t one. You just have to write and keep writing. It’ll never be finished if you don’t take the time to sit down and get the writing done.
And finish it too. There’s a metaphorical graveyard full of unfinished novels and scripts written by people who edited before they finished and consequently never actually got the thing done. You can fix it later. Just write it now. And don’t stop until it’s finished.
IAP: How did you convince Park Row Books to publish 'The Great Unexpected?' Do you have an agent?
DM: David Forrer is the agent who brokered the deal between Legend Press in the UK who are the original rights holders, and Park Row here in the US. To be honest I never quite know what’s going on or what the details are on these things until someone starts sending me contracts, but I’ve met David a few times, and all the people in both Park Row and Legend so I feel like I’m in good hands all the time. I’ll let other people do the convincing and that, and I’ll just stick to the writing.
IAP: How did you get the idea for this novel. Is ‘The Great Unexpected’ based on Mooney family stories? Did you visit elders in retirement homes? Did your family (grandparents, uncles/aunts, et al) tell stories around the dinner table and other gatherings?
DM: I can’t tell you where the idea for the plot originated, because I can’t remember, but I can tell you that there were two massive moments around the death of both of my Grandas that stayed with me so long and they both really inform the story in a very meaningful way.
My Granda Mooney (Daniel Patrick) died when I was about 11 or so. He was a huge part of my life growing up. Both my Grandas were. He was a formidable man. A former aircraft mechanic and soccer player. He was short and stout and teak tough and he absolutely doted on his grandkids, which was massively out of character for him, I think. He died of a pulmonary embolism. But just before he died, there had been talk of taking his leg. It had become gangrenous and they were likely going to have to remove it.