Your book was selected as the 'Wild Geese Summer Page Turner for 2013'. What is the book about?
I hope readers can be entertained by ‘Blood from a Shadow’ as a straightforward thriller, first of all. Against the backdrop of increasing tensions between the USA, Iran and Israel fomented by the Iranian nuclear project, Maknazpy, a Yonkers veteran of the 69th NY Regiment, is lured into a plot to strike another 9/11 on New York. Maknazpy is manipulated by hidden puppet-masters on opposing sides, and his conventional blue collar worldview based on the bonds of duty and loyalty to family, friends and flag are tested and challenged.
His journey takes him from New York to Ireland, Rome and Istanbul in search of the truth before the final showdown in the Shawangunk Ridge of Ulster County, upstate New York.
There is another layer, however, for those with the inclination to search for it. Just as Maknazpy blindly wades through the fog and mirrors of contemporary intrigue and deception (a world he did not create but must struggle to understand and survive), his journey also traces the footsteps of past heroes of Irish history and mythology (again, a world Maknazpy has not created but has inherited). Therein lies the dilemma of Maknazpy, or any hero, past or present, real or mythologized.
On the one hand, he is ‘heroic’; and by culture and tradition our heroes are expected to be the ultimate alpha-males – with the capacity to deliver all-conquering violence on the opposition, to assert ‘Right’ through ‘Might’, with victory in combat the final benediction.
On the other hand, the ‘hero’ must operate in two worlds. One is the real, here-and-now of intrigue and falsehoods, with tangible danger and enemies to exploit any weakness. The other is the world we have received, and created by generations before us, which consists of assumptions and attitudes, expectations and accepted behaviors.
The Irish proverb says “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine” – we live in each others shadows. This is an observation that we depend on each other, and should therefore be benevolent and supportive of other people. It could also mean that none of us are the autonomous individualists as idealized by modern western culture – the free thinking independent, responsible only to our individual conscience which we have each created in isolation.
Maknazpy’s dilemma is not only that the shadows of others have created the real world that he is now a pawn in, but also that the shadow in his blood (the inherited genetic and cultural baggage he has received) demands he behaves in an almost predetermined way.
Indeed, the concept of ‘heroic’ is at the heart of both of Maknazpy’s journeys . The big idea was that none of these characters were performing in a vacuum, and that the cycles of history had already set the scene for their stories and mindsets, so the 'free will' idea is compromised somehow.
That's a couple of things we have going for us in Ireland - cycles of history and cycles of stories - and sometimes they even coalesce.
You envision this as part of a series — tell us about the next book in the series. When will it be available?
I see it as a trilogy. This first part, ‘Blood from a Shadow’, deals largely with external factors that contrive to confuse and impose their influence on Maknazpy (historical & cultural baggage, expectations from family, community, society at large), so that his attempts to isolate himself from all that he knows is compromised .
The second in the series, untitled as yet, will explore Maknazpy’s internal conflict to a greater extent. The thriller aspect of it is set against the backdrop of a Chinese/USA struggle through cyber-espionage and the stealing and manipulation of personal, financial and corporate data. The subtext will give Maknazpy the opportunity to explore and be challenged about what it is that constructs an individual’s identity- in terms of self-realization and in terms of how others shape who we are by their perception and categorization of us. As of mid- August, 2013, I am about 3/4 finished, and hope to have it complete later this year, possibly around Hallow’een (if I’m lucky).
The third part will bring it all together. The blood from a shadow is the combination of genetic, familial, cultural and societal factors and norms that are dealt to each of us. In Maknazpy’s case, he may have a genetically inherited condition of the brain (affecting the chemical balance and hard wiring of his amygdala so that the normal functions of modulating aggression and triggering situation appropriate fear responses are curtailed). It may be that this rare condition has been present in some of those warrior-heroes of historical note, and that Maknazpy comes to recognize this warrior gene as a chemical imbalance of the brain. To trace the source of this genetic abnormality, Maknazpy will seek out his mysterious father, who has been physically absent for all of Maknazpy’s adult life but who has been a shadow figure always present during the first two books.
Who are your writing 'heroes'? How did they inspire you?
I enjoy the writing process as an individual struggle – me and the story.
I don’t have any mentors, per se, but I do get encouragement when I need it from people like John Gaynard, the Mayo author who writes his Timothy O’Mahoney stories in Paris, and John L Murphy, the redoubtable ‘Blogtrotter’, the unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian out of L.A. California.
One of the benefits of waiting until late in life before committing to writing myself is that I have had the opportunity to read and enjoy many great writers without taking on board the pressure to follow a hero. When I was young, up until about late twenties, I would only read Irish writers or Irish related books. Flann O’Brien was an early favourite, of course. I think his books were re-published when I was about 15 or 16, so that was the ideal age to get my hands on them. There were others, like James Stephens and northern writers like Michael Mac Laverty and WR Rodgers, but O’Brien was my favorite.
I read a lot of books translated from Irish, too; ‘The Hard Road to Klondyke’ by Mici Mac Gabhainn (a reference in Blood from a Shadow, by the way), The Road to Bright City , short stories by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Dialann Deoraí by Donall Mac Amhlaigh An t-Oileanach by Tomás O Crohan was a big favourite, and the other Blasket Island books.
Later on I started to read the American noir classics; Hammett and Chandler, but James M. Cain, with his Irish background, and, especially, Jim Thompson were my favorites.
Of the more modern American writers I like James Ellroy, Walter Mosley and Scott Philips (The Ice Harvest may be the best of them all).
Rankin’s Edinburgh Rebus, Mankell’s Swedish Wallander, the Icelandic crime of Arnaldur Indriðason, and the Eberhard Mock series from Krajewski are all great reads.
Not that I am totally pre-occupied with crime stories. I like to graze around philosophy and (not too difficult) science, and will always find time for a John Banville or Neil Jordan book.
If you had to pick only one, which writer inspires you most?
I don’t think I can say any particular person, but instead it would be people. Ordinary people, going about their business, getting by, without letting their human spirit be crushed and throttled by the pressures of modern living.
Certainly the under-dog, in any given situation. Probably a northern Irish Catholic trait, but my affinity is with the subjugated, the oppressed, the disadvantaged. Now, those are the people who have least stake in any society, and may be the ones who are more likely to fall foul of authority, in many of its different forms, but I often feel more comfortable with them than with the materialist, spiritually corrupt ‘betters’ of this world.
That being the case, I hope I do some justice to the disadvantaged I draft in as players in Blood from a Shadow; the Kurdish prostitute and Gypsy petty thief in Istanbul, the Belfast boy exiled to New York for his own safety, the little girl in Iraq – I hope I invested enough humanity in each of them so that they became more than the prejudiced labels that the powerless are often reduced to in books of this sort.
Music is also a good trigger for me, and the characters in Blood from a Shadow are often subjected to whatever I happen to be llistening to at the time. Maybe a 1928 recording of John McKenna (I had him playing the Maid of Mount Kisco on an old Audio Disc recorded in a Bronx Firehouse in one scene), or Count John McCormick singing Una Furtiva Lagrima when a bit of sentiment was required. A young girl from Riverside sings ‘A Stor Mo Chroí’ on the Fordham radio station, the Art McCooey priest character plays Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ on his car radio, and a gaggle of military re-enactors fife and drum ‘Garryowen’ at the 150th anniversary of Marye’s Heights. One character is a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln unit of the xvth International Brigade of the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War. He came to life while I was listening to Christy Moore sing ‘Viva la Quinta Brigada’. Imelda May sings ‘Mayhem’ and Kay Starr sings ‘Wheel of Fortune’ on the jukebox in Rudy’s Bar in Hell’s Kitchen. There are other snippets of music too, most of which were on my iPod playlist at the time.
What was your experience living in Belfast during The Troubles, and how did that affect your narrative?
My experience was much like most people’s. That was our life, that was normal. I only realize how abnormal it was now when I can see how different things are for my own two sons. The elder is 20 years old now, and was a baby in my arms when the Ceasefire of 1994 was announced.
Especially as a teenager, and as a young man, I experienced many scrapes and near misses, like everybody else. I suspect that this subtext in Blood from a Shadow (about the hero-warrior being out of step with civilized society, and characters being driven by received circumstance, nothing happening in a vacuum) is really the Troubles coming out in my writing.
At the same time, I am sensitive of the imperative to keep my writing honest. Many people suffered a lot more than I did in the Troubles, and I don’t welcome many of those ‘Troubles’ books that became popular. Too many stereotypes, clichés, ‘love across the barricade’, one good man (the hero-warrior?) defending us all from the sadistic, evil ‘terrorists’. Too often from middle class scribes (often good writers) easily laying down the middle class maxim that absolves their class from any responsibility, that says ‘If only they were all Middle Class there would be no Troubles’. As if sectarian self interest wasn’t embedded in the very structure of the ‘State’, including all the avenues to economic and cultural power that created and sustained their class over the generations. So, I’d have to say the Troubles affected my narrative in ways that I haven’t quite managed to articulate to myself yet, but I suspect somebody else will volunteer to do that for me!
How has Blood from a Shadow been received by the reviewers?
I have been pleased with the reviews, in the main. As an indie author, I realized that the mainstream reviewers would not be interested so I sought out reviews from Amazon Top 500 Reviewers and other authors. Fortunately, these reviewers liked the book. Also, these experienced reviewers brought their own insight to my writing and their comments helped me to articulate the themes and subtext. Sometimes you are too close to the work yourself, and objective comment from a good quality reviewer helps to order your own thoughts. On the other hand, I sent the book to reviewers in Turkey and India and was very disappointed in their reviews. Not so much because they didn't like it (it isn't the type of book to be to everybody's taste), but because they missed the point completely - even though other, more insightful, reviewers had already signposted the underlying theme.
When you hit the proverbial writer's block, where do you go or what do you do to get the words flowing again?
I just take a break, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a couple of weeks. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to hit on a solution to a plot twist or a character trait when I’m least expecting it; maybe digging in the garden, or driving or listening to music. That's when the writing process is most rewarding - you hit a roadblock and can't see a good solution ahead of you, then, out of the blue, it all clicks again and a difficulty becomes an opportunity. In fact, I like to take the 'easy' plot lines apart and twist them into an unexpected direction. When it works, it all seems so simple. When it doesn't work, I just keep myself busy until a solution presents itself.
What are you working on next?
The sequel to Blood from a Shadow. Some of the characters have survived, and Maknazpy now finds himself astray in the murky world of cyber-warfare. There is obviously a lot happening there, as regards government surveillance and intrusion, and the research has been interesting. Indeed, some of the real life revelations of late have made my fiction look tame!
I am still working hard to keep my characters to the forefront, though, so I have to resist the temptation to let the technology stuff overpower the 'humans' in the book.
It is going fairly well now, and I plan to have it completed before the end of October.
Several of your reviewers suggest the book would make a great movie. Any plans for a cinema project?
That may well be because I have been influenced as much by cinema as by literature - probably a lot more, to be honest. Cinema may be the natural home for the conspiracy thriller, rather than the page. When I was writing, I was trying to harness the atmosphere of movies like Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man , Chinatown or Bodyheat. Also, I referred to John Truby's 'Anatomy of Story - 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Story Teller'. Truby has been described as Hollywood's premiere screenwriting instructor and I found his ideas on story structure very useful.
I don't have any cinema plans in mind myself, or, I should say, I don't have $10 million dollars available to kickstart a project. Having said that, I am always open to offers!
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