I don’t remember how I met Dennis Mahoney.
One day, he wasn’t around; I knew of him only because we shared common Saint Rose blood (he was a communications major there, I am in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program). The next, I was having coffee with him at The Daily Grind, a little joint in Troy, New York—where he lives—talking about books and writing and television shows (three of his favorite things) for several hours before either of us had the gumption to check our watches. He’d done me the favor of looking over some of my fiction for an upcoming class, and it occurs to me that we never really got into talking about it.
A conversation with Dennis is like that: you intend to talk about thematic elements in a first draft, you end up talking about the reincarnation of the Star Wars movies and Vince Flynn’s extraordinary powers of imagination.
Mahoney’s first novel, Fellow Mortals (FSG, 2013) is a comparatively quiet rumination on the after-effects of an accident; its main character, Henry Cooper, is essentially an everyman who loves his wife and respects his neighbors. His story is cerebral and emotionally resonant; ultimately, though, Fellow Mortals has little in common with Dennis’s newest offering, Bell Weather (Henry Holt, 2015), a brilliant, boisterous tale set in an off-kilter version of 18th-century America.
We talked about the publishing of Bell Weather and about writing in general. We met, of course, over coffee.
Bell Weather is just monstrous in how much different it is from Fellow Mortals. Talk about how you went from one to the other.
When I finished Fellow Mortals, I’d been trying to write literary novels my whole career. Character-driver pieces, thoughtful, small, quiet. I was having trouble getting representation, and a book deal, for Fellow Mortals. It had been out in the world for half a year, I wasn’t getting a response, so in the meantime, I began writing the next book—you have to keep writing.
Was the next book Bell Weather?
No. I got about a hundred and fifty pages in (to the next one), but this other idea kept coming back to me. I had wanted to write something really really big for a while.
So when you say that this other idea kept coming back to you, what… kernel, what nugget, did you have in your brain?
There were two kernels. One was, for some reason, eighteenth-century America. I couldn’t think of many great stories set in that period. It attracted me for some reason. It felt like an exciting world that I wanted to go play in.
What was the other kernel?
I’ve always preferred writing women. And I thought if I was going to write a really long story, and potentially spend a decade or more with one character, it needed to be a woman [the lead female character in Bell Weather is named Molly].
When you’re thinking of writing eighteenth-century America, what are you thinking about? Politics? Landscape?
The initial spark came from all the clichés we have about early America. The mythology that we’ve built around it—Sleepy Hollow, Washington and the cherry tree, the New World, the Enlightenment. It was probably difficult and horrible and scary and smelly, but we don’t think of it that way. We’ve romanticized it, and I wanted to build a full-color, romanticized version of that world, but make it savage and dangerous and smelly.
The book flies.
The thing is there’s never a part where you’re bogged down, and I get the sense that you did that on purpose. But if you’re writing about the seventeen hundreds, even if it’s sort of an eclipsed version of the seventeen hundreds, you still have to give these characters some exposition somehow.
The approach to the book came from being a dad and watching stories that my young son was responding to. It knocked me off my snooty literary horse pretty hard. I’d spent years rejecting obvious storytelling clichés and this time I embraced them. If there was a big classic story technique to use, and I saw a way to use it well, I used it. There are cliffhangers, red herrings, there’s suspense, there’s violence, there’s sex.
It seems that a lot of writing students see the story arc and say, “I don’t want to do that. I want to do something beautiful with language.” On the flip side, I see a lot of those same students read things that are written in that way, in a way that they disdain. So, the ones who want to write beautiful poetry are reading Nicholas Sparks or Anita Shreve, or whomever. People who are using the classic storytelling motifs, but not really trying to be adventurous with language. I find that you’re doing both.
I’m trying to do both. I think most of the better writers do. Garcia Marquéz is an obvious example. Beautiful, poetic language. And there’s always some crazy shit happening. Also, the explosion of YA, demand for YA, has changed readers’ demands for story. They want a beautifully written, big, suspenseful page-turner. These beautiful, very artistic, very contained YA series have set a new bar for storytelling.
At the end of the day, you’re competing with television and movies for… not necessarily the same entertainment dollar, although maybe that, too, but certainly for the same entertainment hour.
Right. And it takes a LOT longer to read a novel than it does to fire up Netflix.
Did you outline this thing?
Yeah. With Fellow Mortals, I had a general trajectory, but was winging it for two thirds of the book. At that point, I plotted out the ending to some degree. With Bell Weather, especially because I knew there were going to be so many characters, so many storylines, and told out of chronological order, with mystery elements that I had to tease and deploy at the right time, I had to plot the whole thing or I would have been lost. I spent months plotting it. I have a fifty-thousand word outline.
A lot of people in writing programs would say, “I don’t want to plot this out, because I want to see where the story takes me.”
But when you take six months plotting, you’re writing a book.
What, to you, really makes a character different?
It’s impossible to answer. There is no one thing that makes a character different. By definition, each character should be unique, a person. I want him to be interesting. Someone I’m rooting for. Or at least feeling for. It can be a hateable character I want to see lose, but I want to have a response to that person.
You’ve talked before about wanting to write something your eight-year-old son would like to read. Was that enough of a driver for you to write Bell Weather?
It’s primarily what I like. I loved the experience of watching Breaking Bad, which has tons of crazy shit happening in every episode and also has the most nuanced character work you’ll ever see on television. It did everything. And if it’s possible to do everything, you should try for that. It doesn’t have to be “quiet character study” or “action-packed book.” You can do both.
John Gardner said something like, “No matter what, the moment you have failed to get the reader to the next line, you have failed.”
Just for argument’s sake, I’m the author that disagrees and says, No, it’s the reader’s job to be interested in what they’re reading. Respond.
If you could help the reader along the way, why wouldn’t you? Why turn it into an antagonistic situation? If you’re not able to keep the reader completely engaged, and you’re putting the burden on the reader, you’re probably not trying hard enough.
What did you find your early readers responded to the most?
At least two early readers were surprised that they liked the new one (Bell Weather) because they don’t usually like this kind of book. They liked the characters, they enjoyed the story, they found pleasure in it, which is what I was aiming for.
I think my skill set lies with bigger, poppier books. I feel like Bell Weather challenged me in every way imaginable. Every bit of it was intimidating. But every bit of it was ludicrously exciting and fun. I loved working on it. I love the thought of writing four more of them.
Josh Sheridan is a writer and a fiction editor at Pine Hills Review. He lives in upstate New York with his family, and can be found online at belmontfoghorn.wordpress.com.