An Interview with Dennis Mahoney

NewSmallDennisMahoneyAuthorPhoto-221x300Dennis Mahoney hails from upstate New York, where he lives with his wife, son, and dog. His debut novel Fellow Mortals made Barnes & Noble’s Spring 2013 Discover Great New Writers Selections list, as well as Booklist’s Top 10 First Novels. He’s currently working on his second novel. You can learn more about him at his website or at his blog.


Me: What inspired you to write Fellow Mortals

DM: I answered this in depth at B&N if you’d like to check it out, but here’s the short version. I loved a minor character in a failed novel I’d written the previous year and thought he would make a great lead. That character changed and became Henry Cooper, but the essential spirit remained: optimistic, simple, old-school, bumbling. I wanted to test such a man with a terrible calamity, and I kicked around a lot of ideas before I thought of the fire, which simply felt right when it occurred to me. I could immediately picture the neighborhood and most of the other characters, at least in general form. I don’t write biographical fiction, so I’m always just trying to think of good stories, ones that are entertaining and meaningful to me.

Me: One of the first things I noticed about this book is how you play with perspective. You take us into the heads of so many different characters, rather than staying with one particular person. What made you decide to do this? How do you think this strengthened the novel? Meaning, what advantages does the former have over the latter?

DM: It was very natural. I didn’t think it through very much. I wanted to keep Henry at the center, but it seemed that the book was about everyone, that whole little group and their reaction both to the fire and to Henry himself. I find it most comfortable to write a scene from a specific point of view, so whenever I had a scene that didn’t feature Henry, I wrote it through the eyes of someone who was there.

Me: Speaking of perspective, you even take us into the head of Wingnut the dog, something I haven’t really seen before. What were some of the challenges of writing from Wing’s perspective as opposed to a human’s? How did you prepare yourself?

DM: A total whim, and one I really enjoyed. I love dogs and find myself trying to understand what they’re feeling, so there was Wing in the room with Henry and Ava, and I wanted to give him a quick spotlight. After I did it once, I saw opportunities elsewhere. Wingnut is a mirror of Henry. They have similar hearts. I was eventually able to keep Henry’s personality present in scenes where he himself wasn’t around, like at the end of the book, and I think the story in general supports that intense, very natural love you see in dogs—the kind of love that people often overthink and screw up.

Me: Fellow Mortals contains a wide variety of characters, but my favorites are Henry and Sam. How did these characters come to be? What was your process in developing their characters?

DM: Again with Henry, I just knew him really well, both from that earlier failed novel and from a handful of similar men I’ve known in life. He’s not based on anyone in particular, but a lively person who gets a reaction of everyone, for better or worse, is a terrific person to lead a story. Sam was harder. I wanted to take the story out of normal society to a degree, where the characters could interact on a primal level. That’s why I sent him to the woods. But there’s usually a character in every novel I write who won’t come to life for some reason, and that happened with Sam for a long time. He kept feeling like a prop. It was only in later revisions that I finally started to feel him, and then he became more human and I really understood him.

Me: As a writer, one of the biggest things I struggle with is dialogue. It always ends up sounding so contrived or unnatural. Is this something you struggle with too? How do you go about creating natural-sounding dialogue?

DM: Dialogue comes easily to me. I don’t know why. I tend to style my prose conversationally, to make it sound as unwriterly as possible, and match it to spoken cadences: how would I phrase this story if I were just telling a friend of mine? I tend to keep dialogue short and sweet, and maybe that helps. Alarms go off when somebody speechifies, because I worry it sounds like me, the author, instead of the character. And the author ought to disappear so the reader can focus on the story instead of fancy language or (shudder) themes. Because I’m ultra-aware of that danger, I’m rigorous about keeping my dialogue simple, so it sounds like something a person would actually say at that moment. And if you’re writing good conflict, it’s all back-and-forth. A character’s next statement is informed by what came before, or what’s lurking inside. It might even be a lie, or a seeming non sequitur, but it’s still informed by the moment, cause and effect.

Me: The novel shows how a once close-night community tries to put itself back together after a cataclysm, but ultimately falls apart under the weight of everything that happens. What do you think this says about the communities we create here in the real world? Did you intend for Fellow Mortals to be a critique, if you would, of today’s society?

DM: I actually see it as the opposite: a loosely knit community that does come together. Not everyone fits or makes it through, but the characters who have connected by the end are a true, bonded family. I can see them remaining close for the rest of their lives, and they were essentially strangers at the start. Big-picture-wise, I have a recurring fascination with created families, as opposed to blood relations. Fifty years ago, most people were born, lived in, and died in the same general area. So many people go away to college now, and find jobs across the country, and get married or have kids far from their birth homes. There’s so much scatter. But people want an immediate family, wherever they eventually put down roots, and so they create their own families with people in their daily lives: coworkers, classmates, fellow parents, neighbors. It’s a real need people have, and I love exploring those unexpected combinations.

Me: As someone who went through the publication process for the first time, how was it?

DM: Querying agents and submitting to editors was the usual nightmare. Fellow Mortals is the third book I tried to get published, and even that was rejected by dozens of agents. But once FSG made an offer, it was a dream, start to finish. My editor’s amazing, the whole FSG staff is passionate, smart, and supportive, and I’ve been fortunate with good reviews and attention. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience, and the reward was unquestionably worth the many years of struggle and doubt.

Me: Finally, if you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be and why?

DM: Be disciplined and love it. My writing didn’t improve until I established a daily goal, either minimum hours or minimum word count. If you wait for the muse, you’re dead. It has to be treated like a job, or like the Best Hobby Ever. And the biggest breakthrough I ever had was realizing that even in the best-case scenario—getting published, having readers, being well-reviewed—I’d still have to write every day and produce more books. That’s week after week, for the rest of my life. If I didn’t find a way to love writing (as opposed to taking myself too seriously, or pulling some B.S. tortured writer routine), I’d be crazy to continue. Now I write to have fun, entertain myself, and move myself emotionally. That doesn’t mean it’s without struggle or frustration, but it does mean I love it, like I love being married or love being a parent. It’s a good way to live. If writing isn’t making your life better or more fulfilling on a regular basis, rethink your approach. It should be something you’d do regardless of publication, the way people swim or cook even if they won’t get famous for it. And whatever happens on the page is all yours. A cruddy boss can’t affect it, rejection can’t affect it, family trouble can’t affect it. It’s a great thing to have.