Jaime Boler: Thanks, Dennis, for letting me ask you these questions! I’m so excited about your highly-charged debut, Fellow Mortals. Did you always want to be a writer?
Dennis Mahoney: No. I came to it late, at the tail end of high school. I was creative at an early age but it was more in the line of drawing and imaginative play. I zonked out in middle school and just acted like a regular boy, listening to hair metal and playing Commodore 64 videos games. But eventually my insecurities and general unhappiness led me to reading and writing, which boosted my confidence and gave me something to do.
JB: How would you describe Fellow Mortals in ten words or less?
DM: A tragic fire heightens relationships, for better and worse.
JB: How did you come up with the idea behind Fellow Mortals?
DM: The hero, Henry Cooper, was based on a minor character in a failed novel I’d written. I loved that character and wanted to put such a man—lively, big-hearted, simple—into the spotlight and test him with a horrible crisis, something that would thrust him into close proximity with different kinds of people. He’s someone who gets a strong reaction out of everyone who meets him, of bringing out their truest selves. That seemed like a great seed for a novel.
JB: I love the title. Really, we are all human, we all make mistakes. Did you have the story first and then the title or the title first and then the story? How did you choose the title?
DM: Titles are a nightmare for me. I don’t know why. I’ve written books where every chapter had a title, and I had no problem with that. When it comes to naming a whole book, I struggle every time. My editor and I went round and round with Fellow Mortals, convinced we could think of something better. And then one day we thought, “You know, it kind of works. Let’s keep it.” My current novel-in-progress has a title, and I like it, and that often helps me stay focused. Whether or not that title will stick around for publication is anyone’s guess.
JB: Reading your story, I kept repeating the famous Alexander Pope quote: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Did you have it in mind while writing Fellow Mortals?
DM: The sentiment, yes, if not the exact quote. But I rarely dwell on theme when I’m writing a story. There’s a vibe or trajectory, and my own beliefs and preoccupations are coming through, whether I’m aware of them or not. It is significant that I chose Henry as the central character; I must have found his value system the most intriguing, especially given the problems he was facing.
JB: Arcadia can mean a harmonious and unspoiled wilderness, yet a fire changes everything on Arcadia Street so it is no longer harmonious nor is it unspoiled. Is that why you set part of your story on a street named Arcadia?
DM: Early drafts of Fellow Mortals had loads of references to Greek mythology, which helped me tap into certain primal aspects of the story, like mortality and transformation, but made the book feel pretentious and overwrought. Arcadia was named as a reference to that region in Greece, which was known for peace and contentedness. I didn’t mean to be heavy-handed about it. The name just fit so I kept it. You can still see the mythological influence in Sam’s sculptures, however. Most of them are recognizable: Tantalus, Prometheus, Arachne, Persephone. But it worked better not to make it explicit… to let the sculptures work on a gut level, as evocations of natural forces.
JB: Would you call Fellow Mortals a cautionary tale? How so?
DM: I wouldn’t, really. I suppose lessons could be learned by watching how various characters’ choices play out over the course of the story, but I think novels work best when they simply portray people honestly, and the readers can draw their own conclusions, just as they would if they heard a compelling story in life.
JB: Do you have a favorite character in your story? If so, who? Sam’s character captivated me.
DM: Henry. I’ve known a few men like this and they’re so full of life, it’s contagious. You’re better for knowing them. I have a bit of Henry in me, too, in that I’m a goofy optimist when I probably ought to know better. I loved all the characters to some degree. Even Billy Kane, who’s pretty unlovable. With Billy I had this broken, repellant man and needed to understand him and motivate him. In discovering what made him tick, I started to pity him. I’d have a much harder time loving such a man if he were my actual neighbor, but again, this is something novels can do, for both the reader and the writer; they show us people in ways we might not ordinarily see them.
JB: Do you have a favorite line and/or scene? Please share.
DM: I don’t focus on writing standout lines. I do my best to disappear as a writer and let the characters steal the show. I do have favorite scenes, but wow—this is a tough question. I love the very last scene. It’s has the spirit I wanted to end with, and I love any scene that includes the dog Wingnut.
JB: I adored Henry. He isn’t the sort of man you could hold a vendetta against. And I think Sam and the Finn sisters come to this same conclusion. But not so Peg or Billy. Why can’t they forgive Henry?
DM: Sam struggles with it for a very long time, and has the greatest reason to resent Henry, who accidentally killed Sam’s wife. It is interesting, in retrospect, that Henry gets the most grief from the two people who lost the least. Peg and Billy suffer damage to their houses, but they don’t lose everything the way Sam and the Finns do. You can see in the opening pages that Peg and Billy have a connection in being dissatisfied to begin with, regardless of the fire, but even their mutual anger at Henry isn’t enough to make them like each other. So it’s understandable that they wouldn’t respond well to Henry—a bright-side guy—in any scenario. Their response to the fire comes from their response to life.
JB: One of the characters in Fellow Mortals is Wingnut, a dog. How hard was it getting into Wing’s head? Did you read any books or articles on dog behavior?
DM: Haha, it was weirdly easy. I didn’t plan it. I just suddenly wanted to know what Wingnut was feeling in that early bedroom scene and went with it. I grew up with dogs. We had a cat when I was writing Fellow Mortals, and we’ve since adopted a rescue dog who, coincidentally, is a lovable, goofball mutt exactly like Wingnut. As for how I imagined Wing’s inner life at the time, I’d say that he’s a close mirror of Henry. They have the same personality. And since I myself relate to Henry on certain levels, I guess I have some Wingnut in me, too.
JB: Did you conduct any research concerning the postal service?
DM: A little, yes. Just enough to get the details right and make it believable. I spoke to a wonderful postal employee named Barbara who filled me in the repercussions of a mailman starting a fatal fire with a cigar. But since that particular scenario, as far as we know, is without real-world precedent, I went with how it probably would have played out. I got very lucky in that the USPS, being a government agency, would handle all legal aspects of the case, including civil suits against Henry. That allowed me to get Henry completely off the hook, legally speaking, so I could focus on his conscience, which is so much more interesting.
JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing this story?
DM: Trying to infuse hope and life, in a very genuine way, despite the story being, at face value, something of a downer. I didn’t want a Capital-H happy ending. There’s no resurrecting Sam’s dead wife, for instance. But, being an optimist like Henry, I believe people can make terrible situations better if they try. Life itself, at face value, can be a downer. We want things we can’t have, get sick, get depressed, lose loved-ones, suffer injustice, and eventually die. What do we do about that? Commit suicide or make the most of things? Conveying that spirited defiance of loss and mortality was a tricky thing to do without sounding cheap or sentimental.
JB: What was your publication process like?
DM: Once I had a book deal, it was a dream. My editor, Emily Bell, and FSG did everything right. They’ve supported me ever since. Prior to the book deal, I had dozens of agent rejections, an awesome agent who took me on but retired in the middle of submitting to editors, and lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth. The usual road to publication, in other words.
JB: What advice would you give to anyone working on a debut novel?
DM: My top three: (1) Find a way to love the daily work or it isn’t worth doing (2) Ignore the chatter about “the state of the publishing industry” and how to get published, because it won’t help you write the best possible book (3) Again: love it.
JB: What is your writing process like? Do you write during certain times of the day? Do you have a desk where you write? Do you listen to Baroque music?
DM: Lately I’m up at 5AM and get about 250 words written before driving our son to school. I aim for 750 words a day, 5-7 days a week. I write longhand on a couch in a library/reading room I built a few years ago. (See here: http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com/2013/03/where-writers-write-denis-mahoney.html) I key the pages into the computer every couple of chapters. And yes, the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin novels made me a Baroque music addict. This works especially well lately, since my next book is set in the 18th-century.
JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
DM: It’s always busy with a family. Lots of action around here. I read, watch movies, play with our son and dog, hang out with my wife, exercise some, do a little carpentry, and follow boxing. I used to grow pumpkins in the yard. I could use a new summer hobby this year.
JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?
DM: Patrick O’Brian’s novels, already mentioned, came at just the right time and made my life better in significant ways. I’ve never known characters who felt more like actual friends. I’m going to snob out and say I’m on a Shakespeare kick this year. That guy could write. I’m praying that Susanna Clarke publishes a follow-up to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
JB: Who has influenced your writing the most?
DM: I honestly have no idea. Most of my favorite writers aren’t people I imitate. It’s possible I love them because I’m able to read them like a regular reader, instead of constantly thinking, “Hey, maybe I could try writing like that!”
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Fellow Mortals?
DM: A touch of Henry’s spirit. Also a strong desire to read my next novel.
JB: Barnes and Noble chose Fellow Mortals as a Discover Great New Writers selection. Congratulations! How did you react upon hearing the news?
DM: Thanks! I was thrilled. I found out months before publication, so it removed some of the fear of the publication date, when you aren’t sure if anyone will like the book.
JB: Your writing has been compared to that of Stewart O’Nan and Richard Russo. How do such comparisons make you feel?
DM: Honored, since I’m a big fan of both, and somewhat confused, as I don’t entirely see myself that way. I don’t mean that negatively or positively. I just don’t know who I’d compare myself to because I don’t really think that way. Take a parenting analogy: I try to raise a happy, well-adjusted son, but wouldn’t it be strange to compare my parenting style to that of more famous parents. “Mahoney’s fatherly lectures are reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt Sr.’s inspirational words to young Teddy…”
JB: I have to ask if any of your neighbors have read Fellow Mortals and what their reactions to the book have been?
DM: Haha, good question. None of our neighbors are anything like the characters, so I’m probably OK. I’m a stay-at-home Dad, which looked a little odd once our son began attending school full-time. I think the neighbors are just relieved to finally know what I do all day.
JB: Will you go on a book tour? If so, which cities will you visit?
DM: Most debut authors aren’t sent on tours anymore, because nobody shows up for unknowns. If I’d written a surefire bestseller, that’d be different, but Fellow Mortals is more of a quiet, word-of-mouth novel. I’m doing local signings, but travelling to far-off cities doesn’t make sense. I’d have to sell a ton of copies just to cover the hotel room.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
DM: I’m writing a big mystery-adventure. It’s about a young woman who sails for a new life in a strange colonial America, where she has to survive supernatural weather, forest thieves who steal people’s limbs, and a violent past that threatens to turn everyone against her. My heroine’s name is Molly and she’s an irrepressible optimist, like Henry in Fellow Mortals.
JB: Ooh, that sounds so intriguing and unusual. Thank you so much, Dennis, for a wonderful interview. It’s been a pleasure. Good luck with the book!
DM: Thank you, Jaime!
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux kindly gave me three copies of Fellow Mortals to give away. One is left. Please fill out the brief form below. I will choose a winner on Friday, March 29, at 5 pm ET.