Damian McNicholl’s A Son Called Gabriel is flat-out a great book. Maybe the best way to put it is that over a very busy weekend I read this book in 100-page installments. I didn’t really plan on doing that because I didn’t think I had that much time to read during a particularly packed weekend, but Damian’s book compelled me to. It’s an addictive story of a gay boy’s coming-of-age in 1970s Ireland.
As one might think, this it isn’t very easy to grow up gay in a rural part of ’70s Ireland, and McNicholl does an excellent job of weaving together the separate segments of Gabriel’s experience. There’s the story of Gabriel’s own sexual awakening–the discovery of what homosexuality even is, and the eventual discovery that society thinks it’s perverse. Then there’s the story of Gabriel’s parents, and their own lives and beliefs, which tend to be bigoted. Then there’s the Catholic Church, school, friends, and Protestants, all of which Gabriel has to reconcile with his coming-of-age.
Damian’s book is both beautifully written and a real page-turner, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to interview him.
SE: First off Damian, thanks for taking part in this interview. Let’s start with a little about the book’s plot. This is a book that covers about 10 years of a boy’s life as he grows up in Ireland in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I assume that at least some of this is congruent with your own life. Other than that, why did you choose to tell this story and set it in this time?
DM: Hi Scott, and thank you, too, for extending me an opportunity to appear on your blog.
I’d just finished a novel that’s currently residing as bits and bytes on a floppy disk, and a friend who’s in publishing said it was far too long and needed rewriting and I just could not bear the idea of doing that after having spend two years on it. So, I decided I’d like to write an Irish story that dealt with contemporary issues not covered by Irish literature such as an Irish boy who’s bullied as a child and then has to deal with his confusion about his sexuality as he matures. I also wanted to set it in conservative Northern Ireland as opposed to Southern Ireland because the time period of the novel–the late 60s and 70s–was a very exciting time in that the Roman Catholic minority was asserting itself and taking to the streets to protest their subjugation.
SE: One of the things I enjoyed about this book was watching Gabriel, our main character, become more aware of the world around him as he grows up. When the novel starts, he’s 7 and has a rather limited concept of his surroundings, but as he grows up he begins to understand much more about the different kinds of relationships between men and women. He also discovers more about the Ireland that he lives in, especially with regard to the Catholic/Protestant conflict, the IRA, and the United Ireland movement. Could you talk a little about why and how you approached these things from a growing boy’s perspective?
DM: The novel’s voice was tricky and something I really had to think very hard about when I started to write the book. Gabriel is very young when the novel opens and I wanted to capture precisely the thoughts and knowledge a very intelligent boy growing up in a rural environment would possess as he develops. I wanted the narration and dialogue to portray the boy’s innocence and growth in awareness as he matures, but I had to be careful because the book is intended for an adult audience and thus had to be sophisticated and credible simultaneously.
As Gabriel matures, I allowed him through interactions with an ever-enlarging world to experience hurt and injustice, to process a myriad of conflicting information and form his own opinions about all of it. For example, he filters the political discrimination Catholics endured in a different way to his father. Gabriel’s father’s reactions are more knee-jerk: he lashes out at the British and all Protestants and hates them rabidly. Gabriel, on the other hand, thinks differently; he acknowledges the bigotry, despises it, but analyzes the situations and concludes that all Protestants are not evil. He even risks and eventually endures the ire of his fellow students because he’s curious and befriends a Protestant boy.
SE: I found Gabriel’s first sexual encounters interesting because they’re so different from what we’re brought up to believe about adolescents having sex. Gabriel is a very innocent, awkward boy, pretty much the exact opposite of the corrupted, rotten kids that the media paints as having underage sex. He doesn’t even know what he’s doing. Do you think Gabriel is closer to the reality of kids who have underage sex?
DM: Well, that’s a very interesting question and I’d have to distinguish between city and country life. Gabriel grew up in a very conservative Irish Catholic rural culture where sexuality is repressed and certainly wasn’t a subject to be aired in civilized homes, the physical act only indulged in to make babies within the utopia of wedlock. Otherwise sex was regarded pretty much as something dirty, really. On those rare occasions when sex is discussed, it is pretty speedily and in hushed tones.
Given such a situation, it’s not surprising Gabriel was ignorant of sex and thus would have been utterly confused about it. With city kids or kids more exposed to this facet of our humanity, it would have been very different. I dare say a city boy of the same era, say a child growing up in London, Paris or New York City, would have been more knowledgeable, more experienced. In fact I know this to be true because my friend Larry grew up in NYC and we sort of compared notes.
SE: Sticking with Gabriel’s sexuality for a moment, it’s interesting that at first he isn’t conflicted about his homosexuality because he’s ignorant of prevailing wisdom about that sexual orientation. But as he grows up, he comes to understand what the world thinks of homosexuality.
DM: In Gabriel’s world, the world of seventies Northern Ireland–and even in large parts of the United States at that time–I believe many people thought of homosexuality as being either a sickness or a sin, perhaps even both. Such is not the prevailing case today I’m happy to say, though there are still many ignorant people who do wish or believe this to be so.
With regards to Northern Ireland, in the early eighties for example, the Reverend Ian Paisley–a fire-and-brimstone vicar who’d put Joyce’s vociferous priest in "Portrait of the Artist" to shame–ran a campaign called "Keep Sodomy Out of Ulster" when Britain stated Northern Ireland had to fall in line with the rest of the United Kingdom’s laws and decriminalize it. He lost his battle to keep homosexuality a crime–in large part due to Britain’s fear the European Court would enter the fight and force Westminster to end such discrimination in a part of its jurisdiction and thus create an unwelcome precedent–and the law was amended to make homosexuality legal, though many Catholics and Protestants are still very disapproving. But I mean, let’s face it, if dealing with heterosexual sex makes many Irish people squeamish, they’re hardly going to be lauding tolerance and civil rights for homosexuals, are they?
SE: Switching gears, I must say that A Son Called Gabriel sounds very Irish. From what I know of the Irish vernacular from movies and other books, I think you nailed it. Is that just the way you write, or did it take some effort to get into that voice?
DM: Thank you. No, I don’t really write like that. My next novel, for example, is set in London and I had to get in some of the flavor of how English people speak. I’ve found that trying to get in a smattering of dialect to give the book authenticity while keeping the read smooth wasn’t actually as difficult as I’d thought it would be. I think that’s because I’m very attuned to accents, have been ever since I was a child, and living in any part of the British Isles is a great place if regional accents interest one. There are so many over there and they’re all so rich. Actually, when I moved to the States, most people thought I was Scottish because Americans tend to think of an Irish accent as soft and melodic. That’s actually a Southern Irish accent; the Northern Irish accent is harder, more pronounced and we go up at the end of a sentence as if we’re asking a question.
SE: The world has quite a few coming of age novels, to say the least. When you were writing A Son Called Gabriel, did you feel pressure to distinguish yours from the others already out there, or did you not worry about that?
DM: I didn’t worry about it. What I set out to do was write a story I would love to read and let things develop from there. That was always my guiding principle. And I think what emerged is different from the typical coming-of-age tale because Gabriel’s story merges those standard elements with issues appertaining to the larger society of which he is a member, issues like the hypocrisy of people, religion, politics and injustice.
SE: Following up on that last question, historical events surrounding Ireland’s fight to maintain peace and home rule (events that continue to this day) figure in to your novel’s story. Why did you include these? Was it important to you that your novel engaged the larger world in some way, in addition to telling Gabriel’s story?
DM: It was vital to show the larger world. When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, the politics disgusted me and I tried to tune it all out. ‘Dissociate’ is the term favored currently in the United States. It was tough to do this successfully because bigotry (from both sides of the divide, I have to say) was ubiquitous, as was intolerance and discrimination, the latter aimed solely against Roman Catholics.
As I grew older, it became hurtful to be discriminated against. I despised seeing my parents marginalized in their homeland. I witnessed my mother come home from a civil rights rally one Sunday with dried tear rivulets on her cheeks and her knees cut in shreds because the British Army had shot at innocent protesters and killed thirteen. That was a seminal moment. So when I set out to write Gabriel’s story, I was determined to examine issues like that through his eyes. I was determined to portray the injustice, yet also equally determined to show that not all Protestants were responsible or supported the shameful injustice.
SE: Sticking with Protestants and Catholics, I noticed that despite your characters paying much lip-service to churches, often religious beliefs were more about convenience than belief. For example, Gabriel wasn’t especially devout, but that certainly didn’t stop him from asking God to help him deal with bullies, tests, and homosexuality. Also his mother, an extremely devout woman for whom the Pope is infallible, would rather have her son date a Protestant than be homosexual. With these portrayals, were you trying to show how much complexity underlies anyone’s religious beliefs, and perhaps provide some hope for overcoming religious animosity?
DM: A people’s relationship with their God is obviously pretty complex. In Western culture I often suspect we base our relationship on convenience. By that I mean, God is often kept in the background and appealed to through the vehicle of religion only in times of crisis or extreme need…in other words, we want God to be available at a time of our choosing.
In the novel, I wanted to depict a young Irish boy’s changing attitudes to Roman Catholicism as he matures in a rigid society that accepts the tenets of its religion without much questioning. At the beginning, Gabriel’s attitudes are similar to his mother’s–and she like many Irish believe in the infallibility of the Pope–but change rapidly as he develops. Like many young people, especially intelligent young people in any culture, he becomes cynical of rigid dogma and attitudes, analyzes what’s going on, rejects the hypocrisy, and in the end forges his own unique relationship with God. He ends up both loving and hating God, really.
While I always hope my fiction will educate as well as entertain, the question of hoping to overcome religious animosity wasn’t in my mind. You see, because I grew up in Northern Ireland, I began to understand that the issue of sectarianism is just one aspect of the Irish problem. There’s also a deep distrust and dislike between the cultures which must be addressed and overcome.
SE: One last question about the book. The town Gabriel grows up in is a very rural, very traditional part of Ireland, and many of its inhabitants would appear bigoted and closed-minded. And really, they have to be like that or else the town wouldn’t be realistic. Yet some of these characters, like Gabriel’s parents and relatives, needed to be sympathetic characters that we could understand, despite their prejudices (which were probably hammered in by society while they were still young). How did you walk the line between making these characters authentic, yet keeping them likable and comprehensible?
DM: Yes, I had to strike a balance. It really wasn’t uppermost in my mind to have them portrayed as likable. So long as readers could sympathize with them, could identify with their predicaments and understand the root of their bigotry, I figured a vital connection would be created that would permit readers to enjoy the story as it unfurled. That was what I set out to do, and I measured everything the characters did or said against that yardstick. And then an extraordinary thing happened: many of the characters become likable as well as sympathetic. That was a bonus. I was very pleased. Of course, Gabriel the protagonist, was likable from the very first page. Perhaps that’s a result of using a very young narrator. I don’t know, but perhaps.
SE: Could you talk a little about how you got started writing? When did you realize that you really wanted to pursue this seriously, and how difficult was it, starting out, to get published? How long were you writing before you finished A Son Called Gabriel? Did you publish any short stories beforehand?
DM: Well, I’m one of five siblings and I was the storyteller in the family. In fact, my parents always said they never had any trouble getting us to go to bed early at night when we were kids because my brothers and sisters always knew I’d tell them a story. So I guess the seeds of becoming a writer were planted then.
I never thought seriously about becoming a writer until I moved to the States. Of course, sometimes, I used to imagine I’d be a writer, but I never thought I’d ever do it. The odds seemed stacked against it. When I moved to America, I did the bar exam and became a lawyer, but I never really enjoyed the work. And then an impulse to seriously explore writing kicked in and, during the bus commute to and from NYC every day, I read books about writing and did writing exercises. Then, in 1997, I wrote that first unpublished novel I mentioned earlier.
A SON CALLED GABRIEL was commenced in 1999. It took about six months to write the first draft. Thereafter, it took another year-and-a-half to perfect before I started to query literary agents for representation. I had a short story called PRAYERS FOR A BULLY published in the ‘Bucks County Writer’ a few months before the Gabriel hardcover was published in June 2004. Everything happened all at once for me.
SE: What was your basic m.o. when working on Gabriel? Were you able to work full-time on it? Did you have a particular place or way that you liked to write?
DM: I had the luxury of working full time on Gabriel and I treated it just like a job. I worked 9 to 5 and just took breaks for coffee and lunch. I’m sure that’s why the first draft was written quickly. I had made a little studio on the third floor of the house where I’d been living at the time I was writing the book and that’s where I retreated every day to write.
SE: Were there any particular authors and/or books you were thinking of while writing Gabriel? What were you reading as you wrote it?
DM: No, I wasn’t really thinking of any authors or books in particular while writing Gabriel. I believe I was re-reading Far From The Madding Crowd at one stage. I know I wasn’t reading for research purposes because I’d got all the research stuff I needed for Gabriel while writing the previous novel.
SE: How did you eventually get connected with your current publisher? Was the novel shopped around a lot? Did you have an agent working with you?
DM: I’d sent Gabriel to Joan Schweighardt who owns a small publishing house called GreyCore Press and she loved it but had committed to her list for that year. So she offered to show it to CDS Books which is the publishing arm of Client Distribution Services–a large independent book distributor just sold recently to Perseus—as her press is a client of theirs. After having been read by five or six people at CDS Books, they made an offer and, having done my research on them by then, I agreed because I figured it would both be novel (no pun intended) to get published by a book distributor and that they’d really know how to market the book, which they did. Also, it really worked out because they appointed Joan as the publicist as that’s her background. She’s now busy handling the campaign for the Trade Paperback.
Absolutely, it was shopped around. My agent sent it to the large houses who passed. Many of the editors wrote deliciously crafted letters complimenting the writing, etc. Because part of the plot deals with Gabriel’s sexual confusion, some editors at those houses proved incapable of stretching themselves and viewed it as a gay as opposed to a mainstream novel, and thus felt that that genre was soft at that time. Yet other editors felt it was hurt by the fact there’d been a huge Irish book called ANGELA’S ASHES and the market wasn’t ready for another. Heartbreaking that was, though in hindsight I’m extremely happy it panned out this way because Gabriel needed a maverick independent to publish it well. I’m pretty sure the book would not have got a campaign if a large house had acquired it.
SE: What has it been like trying to generate publicity for you novel? What’s it like trying to be heard above the tens of thousands of other novels out there? Have you and/or your publisher done anything innovative to make your novel known?
DM: It’s very tough to generate publicity for fiction and Joan’s doing a stellar job. The novel’s been reviewed in many magazines and I’m doing TV and a great deal of radio.
It’s been practically impossible to get the major newspapers to review. There are just so many books, fiction is getting less Sunday ink, and the lion’s share of what ink is allocated seems to go to works from the large publishing houses. I know this is a subject you’re interested in because of your membership in the very exciting Litblog Coop.
The publisher’s done a few innovative things. They sent out a CD of me reading a few chapters so as to give reviewers and booksellers a taste of the novel’s Irish voice. I think that helped get it selected as an ABA Booksense Pick. They’ve also got an author blog up and running for me at http://damianm.blogspot.com/. It’s not exclusively focused on books and writing–though I mention that a lot as well–because I wanted to make it more diverse. So what I blog about is dependent on what I feel like writing about at that moment; one day it’s Charles and Camilla, the next the Pope’s on stage.