Kathryn Esplin-Oleski, a prodigious author on Gather.com, interviewed me recently for and has just posed a lovely review of A Son Called Gabriel that I wanted to share with you.
Here it is (and you can alos see her layout in all its technicolor glory by joining Gather.com, which is a free social networking site):
Damian McNicholl is a long-time Gather member (February 14, 2006) (http://damianmcnicholl.gather.com) who grew up in Northern Ireland and went to law school in Wales; in the 1990s, Damian came to the US as an attorney and taught himself to write fiction as he commuted from Long Island to New York City. Agents picked up Damian's manuscript of A Son Called Gabriel and it was published.
The protagonist, Gabriel Harkin, is the sensitive, first-born child of four in a working-class, Catholic family set in the Northern Ireland of the 1960s; Gabriel's childhood is beset by oft-brutal cruelty set within a loving family. Life is difficult for Gabriel because times were strict and he tries to hide his fears as he realizes he is not like other boys. In this coming of age novel, Gabriel soon realizes that Uncle Brendan, a priest, also struggled with a secret and had to leave Ireland for Kenya. The novel deals very poignantly with how Gabriel's parents and siblings try to offer Gabriel comfort as he struggles to conform to life. A Son Called Gabriel goes beyond most coming-of-age novels published in recent years. A must read.
A Son Called Gabriel was made an ABA Book Sense pick and was a finalist in a couple of literary awards, including the Lammies. Damian has co-authored a play with another playwright, based on 'Gabriel' that is under consideration for production at theatres in the US and abroad.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Damian about A Son Called Gabriel.
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Damian, your novel, A Son Called Gabriel seems to be partially autobiographical, or, at least, based on some truth. Would you like to describe for readers what growing up in Northern Ireland was like?
A Son Called Gabriel is what I refer to as semi-autobiographical. By that I mean it has the elements of truth in certain aspects of the work, especially the political climate in which I grew up where the minority in Northern Ireland were repressed and discriminated against and took to the streets to demand their civil rights, and the complex issues involved with both heterosexual and homosexual sexuality in a very conservative environment. However, Gabriel is not me and Gabriel's family is not my family.
Growing up in Northern Ireland at that time [Ed note: 1960s and 1970s] was difficult for Catholics because they did not have the right to vote and all the best jobs were reserved for the Protestant majority. That is not to say that all Protestants had good jobs, of course. There were working class and impoverished Protestants, particularly in the inner cities, who were brainwashed or allowed themselves to be puppets for their Protestant masters--the landowning, Eton-educated Protestant masters--by accepting their bigotry and ideas that Catholics were wicked and untrustworthy, and vassals of the Church of Rome whose goal was world conversion to Catholicism.
But life there was also full of joy and fun. I grew up in breathtaking part of the Northern Irish countryside where farmers tilled their fields, juicy plums were picked from trees that grew alongside the road; carnivals, sports events and concerts featuring local talent were held frequently, and neighbors socialized and looked out for one another. (We also had our share of community gossips who kept the fires well banked and used attendance at Sunday Mass for intelligence gathering and reconnaissance.)
There was a lot of church because the area I grew up in was fervently Catholic and I attended Catholic primary and high schools. The entire community attended Mass on Sundays, observed Holy Days and fasted during Lent. Lent was always difficult for children and teenagers because it meant Mass every evening for six weeks, with Benediction and Rosaries thrown in for good measure.
Contemporary Northern Ireland is a very different place. My nephews and nieces are pretty similar to American kids today because of the Internet and TV, though they are not as coddled and micro-managed as many kids are here. I was over in Ireland a few months ago and my brother's twins--they're six--are speaking with very proper English accents and it was quite hysterical to listen to them. No one can understand why they are speaking like this or where it comes from, but it's very funny. They've been talking like this for two years. A few years ago, it would have been scandalous for an Irish kid to have an English accent. But the economy over there is doing extremely well and many people over there are now as well off as Americans, so the political strife and hatred has given way to reconciliation and a slow built trust between the two cultures. Those who still hate are being marginalized. That's how it should be.
How long did it take to write Gabriel?
The first draft of A Son Called Gabriel only took six or seven months to write. I think this was because it was so personal and Gabriel and his story was already fully formed in my mind. Of course, rewriting and editing took as long again.
You have such a beautiful, lyrical style to your prose - so haunting, quite reminiscent of Frank Mc Court's Angela's Ashes. Have you published other works besides Gabriel?
Thank you. I've read Angela's Ashes and enjoyed the writing style. Gabriel is my first published novel.
Your second novel will be published in 2009. Would you like to give us any hints as to what it is about?
It will be published in 2009 (maybe earlier if they so decide) by The Friday Project in the UK. Well, I can reveal it's now going to be a series of novels and they're going to be comic with just the right amount of darkness thrown in. I like to use humor in my writing where possible, even when dealing with heavy subject matter, because I can't stand books that are too heavy.
The working title of the novel is Unusual Steps. However, after working with my editor, we made the decision to split the novel in two, as the principal characters are very strong and have their own story lines. I'm working now on Marcus's story, which is about a young well-bred man leaving Ireland for the bright lights of London.
He moves into a house belonging to a very assertive young woman who's an immigration officer at Heathrow and next door lives a very meddlesome neighbor. He also befriends a very interesting American woman who's studying at the LSE [Ed note: London School of Economics] has a couple of run-ins with the law, and the story depicts his adventures as he goes about finding his place in the world. The second novel in the series will be about Julia, the immigration officer.