Life & Arts
Author’s first novel published after false starts, rejections Q&A
Dennis Mahoney’s career as a writer began as a bad poet. But that was a long time ago.
A graduate of Catholic Central High School (1992) in Troy and The College of Saint Rose (1996) in Albany, Mahoney begins a new chapter in his life next week when his first novel, “Fellow Mortals,” will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux of New York City. He will have a book signing on Thursday, Feb. 7, at Market Block Books in Troy.
Mahoney took his English degree from Saint Rose and headed to New York City, where he worked as a television researcher for The Hallmark Channel until 2001. After meeting his wife, Sarah Nicole, and getting married in 1998, Mahoney moved to Mamaroneck, Westchester County, and began working for the Greenwood Publishing Co. in Westport, Conn.
When his son, Jack, was born nine years ago, Mahoney decided to quit his full-time job, work part time at home, and take care of his son. That move also gave him the opportunity to concentrate on writing his first novel. In 2005, the Mahoney family moved back to Troy, where he continued to do freelance copy writing for Greenwood and focus on his own writing.
These days when Mahoney isn’t working on a new book and watching his son, he’s writing his blog, “Giganticide,” or immersing himself in the sport of boxing, both as a fan and a participant.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
A: Creatively, I was more inclined toward drawing and painting, but I was never any good at it. I was kind of late. It wasn’t until my junior year that I started to zero in on writing, and that was only after I started reading a lot. Then I started writing poetry, really bad poetry, and I still have a collection, as does a former girlfriend who keeps holding it over my head. But I took to reading pretty well, mostly fiction, and the summer after my freshman year in college I wrote a novella. It added up to about 100 pages.
Q: What did you do after graduating from Saint Rose?
A: I really had no inclination toward teaching. I just didn’t have it in me. So, with my English degree I went to New York and began crunching Nielsen ratings for a television researcher. My degree opened some doors for me; if you can communicate and write well, people will hire you. I worked there for a few years. It was great being in your mid-20 s and to be in Manhattan. I met my wife at a Barnes & Noble. I was the coffee guy and she was the music girl. But after we got married and got a little older, we were glad to leave.
Q: It was then you really started to write?
A: Yeah, it was about that time that I really got serious about writing my novel. I had gotten lazy in my 20s, and I realized I was never going to finish anything unless I established some discipline. I would work, and then go to the Westport Library and refuse to leave until I had written 1,000 words, whether they were good or bad. That established the discipline of writing something every day, and that changed everything. I would go to the library cafe, eat some coffee cake to motivate myself, and then wrote a horrible horror novel. I wrote it and put it away. I knew it was bad, but it was getting me into the habit of writing. Then, in 2004 Jack was born and I decided to become a stay-at-home dad.
Q: Tell me about “Mortal Fellows.”
A: It’s about a mailman who accidentally starts a neighbor’s house on fire, which kills a young wife and destroys a number of homes. His response is to risk everything, his marriage and his life, to try to make amends with the victims.
He’s a very decent man who makes a horrible mistake. I had this character in mind from one of my earlier failed novels, and the idea for the story came from out of nowhere. I was walking into a Walgreens and I literally had this flash. I still have the receipt that I used the back of to write down the idea. I felt like I had something that was good enough to support this character over the course of a long book.
Q: How does someone get their very first novel published by a major company?
A: I have the usual story of many rejections along the way. I eventually got an agent who helped me, and I got one response from a publisher who reluctantly passed and told me the reasons why. I agreed with the reasons, and I went back and did a rewrite. Then I kind of threw what I felt was a Hail Mary pass to another editor and it all worked out. It’s a slow process and you go through multiple last-minute proofreadings and tweak a few minor things. My book was more or less done in the spring of 2012.
Q: Your book has a few comments by a couple of successful authors, such as Stewart O’Nan, who wrote “Snow Angels.” How does that come about?
A: I had no direct connections, but I am a big fan of his writing so I just wrote him a letter and he actually wrote back to me on a postcard. He was very receptive. He read my book and gave me a wonderful blurb. I just reached out for an author I liked very much and hoped for the best.
Q: Now that you’re a published author, what is your next goal?
A: At one point my goal was to be offered a deal by a major publisher in New York. Now my goals have been adjusted, but that was the original target. Now I want to finish my second novel. It’s a mystery-adventure set in an alternative Colonial America. It’s vaguely supernatural in the sense that the weather and the landscapes are different.
I wanted to write something about that period without being bound to the actual history. So I am doing a tremendous amount of research on that time period, but I wanted to be able to go to where the story led me. It’s a bit daunting to have a historian read your book and find your mistakes. I’m doing it this way because I wanted to focus on the characters, not worry about when rhododendrons were introduced in America.
Q: What advice would you give a young person today who wants to become an author?
A: I would say read a lot, number 1 and, number 2 write for fun. Fun is a tricky word. I don’t mean you have to sit down and be laughing the whole time, but you need to be deriving some real satisfaction along the way. You also have to treat it like a real ordinary job. Even in a creative job, you have to sit down and work at it. Maybe it doesn’t come to you right away, but if you keep working it will start to show up.
Q: Do you have any hobbies?
A: I do a little bit of carpentry work, mostly for stuff around the house, and I just started doing boxing workouts. I hit the heavy bag and the speed bag, and it’s a great workout. I’m not going to fight myself, but I have become a big fan of the sport. It’s not as popular as it used to be. Today, if you’re a great athlete, it’s a better business plan to go into professional football than boxing.
Q: Did you have any teachers who really inspired you?
A: I took one literary writing class at Saint Rose, and Hollis Seamon, who’s still there, was just a wonderful professor. And, at Catholic Central, Father William Turnbull was a very smart, caring and funny man who handed me my first copy of Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer.”