Fragile Bonds: An Interview with Dennis Mahoney
Words By Dani Hedlund
On the surface, Fellow Mortals, the debut novel by Dennis Mahoney, is a quiet work. Men and women go to work, return home, share dinner, do household chores. Neighbors peer through windows, watching the same rituals reflected in the surrounding houses. However, beneath this humdrum exterior, a tumultuous interplay of kindness and darkness battles for control, bringing us a shockingly honest and beautiful portrayal of American life.
From the vacant, blackened lots to the tear-soaked faces, Fellow Mortals opens with a neighborhood haunted by tragedy. Many are angry, angry that their mailman, a once-reassuring facet of their lives, is escaping scot-free for causing the fire. They cry out for retribution, for the loss of their homes, their community, the young wife who died in the flames. No one, however, yearns for justice more than the villain himself:
Henry Cooper is determined to make amends for his carelessly discarded match, even if he has to force good deeds on his neighbors. Although some are glad to exchange his kindness for forgiveness, others, like the recently widowed Sam Bailey, are not. Wanting nothing to do with the man who killed his wife, Sam secrets himself away into the woods, carving tortured sculptures into the trees. Henry is unwilling to accept this. Walking the dangerous line between atonement and self-destruction, he thrust a strange friendship on Sam, the two sharing a mutual desire to see Henry punished for his actions.
As the narrative alternates between multiple characters’ perspectives, we witness the impact these actions have on the community. From the quiet old women living in Henry’s home, to the ever more incensed husband across the street, Mahoney expertly submerges us in each perspective, creating a 360° view of the mounting tension. As each character is tested, the curtains between each home begin to pull back, revealing both hidden kindness and exceptional darkness.
It is without hesitation that Tethered by Letters recommends Dennis Mahoney’s debut novel. Like all great fiction, Fellow Mortals spotlights how, even in the most humdrum situations, a great battle for good and evil ranges on. Narrated with a beautiful, character-driven style and exceptional diversity of voice, this novel explores the bonds that hold a community together, exposing both how resilient and fragile they can become.
Mahoney on Fellow Mortals
Having such a unique premise, I was eager to ask Mahoney what inspired him to write Fellow Mortals. “I started with Henry,” he explained, “He was based on people I’ve known in life: that kind of old school optimist who didn’t really think through the right thing to do to the point where it paralyzed them; they just went for it, sometimes making mistakes along the way, but good hearted people.” This sort of character has appealed to Mahoney before. In fact, he wrote a character much like Henry in a previously unpublished novel. “I always really liked that character and thought he’d be a terrific protagonist because he was such a go-getter.” Reflecting on his early writing years, Mahoney pointed out that he didn’t always see the value of characters who could “drive a story.” Like many young writers, he used to construct characters that were impacted by the world instead of the other way around. “But when the character is actually the motivator in the story,” he stated, “it’s much more engaging.”
Once Mahoney had his main character cemented, the next obstacle was finding a disaster to challenge Henry’s good-natured optimism. Mahoney knew he wanted it to be something “very primal, visual, and elemental.” After he finally decided on the fire—an idea that hit him suddenly outside his local drug store—the story started to fall into place: “I could just see the little neighborhood after that, and then I just needed to start populating the community.”
Creating the characters who lived on Arcadia Street was a difficult task. Mahoney first began with eight houses, but quickly realized that was too many characters to balance. This is especially relevant given the narrative style. Instead of having a third-person distanced narrative, Mahoney allows his narrator to inhabit each character’s mental zone, allowing us to see Arcadia Street through several different perspectives. Although I anticipated him bemoaning the difficulty of writing the more convoluted characters, Mahoney instead stated that the most difficult characters were those who he identified with most:
“The one character that would not come to life for me in the beginning was Sam, who is closest to me. He’s a thirty-year-old white guy, somewhat artistic, somewhat sensitive, so I just could not get into that character. I have a much easier time writing characters that are not like me. For example, it’s easiest for me to write women. That forces me to imagine it harder, to really figure out what makes them tick…”
Aside from Sam, the other challenge for Mahoney was writing Billy’s perspective, particularly the darker sections. “It’s uncomfortable,” he explained, “to really feel the way he feels, to understand him.” To overcome this obstacle, Mahoney broke Billy’s feelings and actions down to base emotions, something he could relate to—jealousy, anger, fear, pride—and then built upon that feeling. “I know anger, I know doubt, I know ridiculous optimism, from there I can relate to the character’s situation, thinking what I would do if I’d made different choices…”
The alternating perspectives also gave Mahoney the opportunity to make the narrative an essential tool for character development: “The moment I begin to look at a scene through a particular character’s eyes, every single thing you’re writing about is now telling the reader about the character: What does Ava look at, what does she choose to see and why?” This “immersive writing” also contributed to Mahoney’s ability to pull off a softer literary style. By allowing each description to “say something” about the characters, the domestic scenes in the novel brim with meaning.
Although this softer pacing is a major facet of Fellow Mortals, Mahoney was very timorous in its use: “There was this quiet literary affect I was beginning to drift into, and was frankly getting a little impatient with in novels I was reading.” Trying to steer away from these “boring” moments, Mahoney studied popular novels, exploring what inspired the reader to keep turning the pages, even in extremely long works or novels that aren’t written particularly well. “It’s that suspense,” he concluded, “that little itch you’re planting in a reader’s head that keeps things moving forward. That momentum allows you to get away with quite a bit. It makes that quieter writing possible.” As a result, he constructed the softer sections of the novel around some sort of tension: “I wanted the story to have actual events, for there to be conflict at every moment… almost every scene is an argument in some way.” As a result, we have beautiful moments in Fellow Mortals where the characters might just be folding laundry, but the scene is taut with conflict: each action indicative of deep-seeded issues between the two and their place in the world.
Mahoney on Writing and Publishing
Mahoney has been at the game of writing for almost twenty years. However, it was only in the last decade that he started to finalizing manuscripts and market his work. “It was only when I hit thirty,” he explained, “and realized that I hadn’t really done anything with my twenties, that I got really serious about my career.” To do this, Mahoney started a daily writing routine, setting word-count goals, and becoming very disciplined about his work. “That’s when I started finishing things, and when I started to improve.”
The first novel that he sent out to literary agents was not picked up, but it received some positive feedback. “They read the query, requested pages, and then passed, but they were on the fence enough to call me and talk about why.” This process gave him enough confidence to start another work. Again, when he completed this novel, he shopped it for representation, and this time he signed an agent. “Unfortunately,” he confessed, “we just couldn’t get the manuscript to work. My agent and I knew that it needed work, that it needed something, and we thought we could fix it, but we just couldn’t figure it out. There was just something fundamentally broken about that book, so I had to put it down.”
“That was a make or break point for me,” he explained, reflecting on how difficult yet another failed attempt at publication had become. Fortunately for us, he realized that he simply couldn’t leave writing behind, that it had become an essential part of “staying sane.” He knew, however, that he’d have to make a change if he was going to keep pursuing professional writing. “The biggest thing for me,” he explained, “was getting to a point where I really loved it again.”
Thus, with a new outlook, he started writing again. After only 6 months, he had finished the first draft of Fellow Mortals, and after twelve months, he was already submitting queries for representation. This time, his hard work paid off and after the arduously long process of querying, he landed a wonderful agent and received a publishing deal for his debut novel!
Given his long and often trying career, I was eager to ask what advice Mahoney had for new writers. “You gotta love it,” he reiterated, “and when I say love it, I mean, you gotta love the boring, not-quite-working draft that you do everyday.” In addition to enjoying the craft, Mahoney advocated the importance of not waiting for the muse: “You’ve really gotta sit down and get some sort of routine, however small it is. If you only have an hour in your day, then do that hour, if you only have a lunch break, do that…You’ll always meet people who say they have a book in them, that they would love to be a writer, but gosh they’re just so busy with their kids, and their jobs, and all of this… If you really wanna be a writer, you make it work. People find a way if they want to find a way. If you’re making a lot of excuses, then that might be the surest sign that you’re not really supposed to be a writer…If you really want it, you will do it.”
Excerpt from Fellow Mortals
The grand jury had finally been impaneled early this week—thirty-two days after the fire—to decide upon the case of Henry Cooper’s criminal indictment. The fire marshal, an investigator, and the elderly sisters, Nan and Joan Finn, had each given their testimony, but in spite of his eagerness to face the jury, Henry himself had been repeatedly dissuaded from appearing.
“It can’t help,” his lawyer said. “They aren’t looking for remorse. They’re looking for the slightest little evidence of crime.”
“Doesn’t hiding look bad?” Henry asked.
“They look at elements of guilt. The fewer elements the better. I advise you not to go.”
Henry takes a shower now, staring out cold and dialing up to hot, even though he’s barely broken a sweat today, and not the kind of sweat he’d get delivering mail. The soap is cucumber scented and has a few of Ava’s hairs pressed into the soft white layer on the bottom. He lathers up and hums—Ajax…Stronger than dirt!—but immediately quits and bumps his head against the wall. The sound is echoey and hollow—one, two, three—and he stops this, too, so Ava doesn’t hear.
“Are you all right?” she calls, muffled through the door.
“I’m okay!” Henry says.
He steps out, pouring water onto the floor, and pauses with his face in the fogged-out mirror.
Wignut wags and licks Henry’s toes. He’s a plain brown mutt, fifty pounds and five years old, with a hound’s bassoony bark and a long crooked tail—the kind of glad, generic dog kids doodle when they’re four. Henry moves him off but then apologizes, summoning him back to pat his rump. He hangs the towel on the curtain rod, pees, and breaks wind. He wipes the splatter off the rim with a ball of toilet paper, lowers the seat, and forgets to flush, his mind racing ahead to brushing his teeth and talking with Ava, who’s waiting out in the bedroom, folding laundry after a full day of work.
Flashes of the fire happen all the time, triggered by the plainest, most arbitrary things: the backs of Ava’s knees, freshly brewed coffee. Memories of smoke, red and white lights out the corner of his eye. A body on fire and his sweater in the hedge. He remembers things he didn’t even see, like now, when he’s wiping off the mirror and imagines Laura Bailey shaking out his hair before she went to bed…