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Page Turner: Recalling the Great War

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

What is your latest book about?
“The Canal Bridge” (to be published by Lilliput Press this fall) follows two Irish stretcher bearers trying to stay alive and sane as they scrape the floor of the abattoir that was Europe between 1914 and 1918. On one level, the novel deals with the lives of four young people caught up in the war and the lovers and families they leave behind. On another level, it questions the place the World War I veterans should occupy in the pantheon of Irish heroes.
The main impetus for writing “The Canal Bridge” was my memories of the World War I veterans I encountered during my childhood. I heard it said many times that every house in Mountmellick had had a relative in the trenches. In one family alone, five brothers joined up-one was killed, while another was buried in an explosion and suffered shellshock. Then there was the postman, a veteran with a wooden leg; the house we were afraid to go past because of the screams of the shell-shocked man inside; Jack Staunton whom we imitated in his peculiar walk until our father caught us, and told us Staunton had pulled his wounded commanding officer out of no-man’s-land; the hill in Mountmellick, called Hill 60 after the Belgian site that was the scene of horrific fighting, on which the British government built housing for the veterans.

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
I write several hours every day, in my home office with the door closed and low classical music playing.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Stop talking about it, and sit down and write it. Do not burden your family and friends with private readings unless they ask. Marry your agent.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner. “Charlotte’s Web” by E. B. White.

What book are you currently reading?
“A Distant Mirror” by Barbara Tuchman. If you are pessimistic about the state of the world today, this history of the calamitous 14th century will convince you that we will continue to muddle through.

Is there a book you wish you had written?
“The Grapes of Wrath.” Steinbeck did not need to use obscure words or to be obtuse to let his genius shine out.

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.
Rereading “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson as an adult.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
James Joyce, to ask him what he was smoking when he wrote “Finnegans Wake.”

What book changed your life?
“In the Season of the Daisies,” my first novel. I had been writing for over a decade when it was published, and the positive reception it received convinced me I should keep writing.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
The walk along the bank of the Owenass River in Mountmellick, from the Convent Bridge to Derrycloney, my grandmother’s home.

You are Irish if…
You read in the dark and never turn on a light unless your wife asks you to.

(Tom Phelan will discuss “Life in the Irish Countryside in the 1940s” and read from his works on Tuesday, March 15, at 2 p.m. at Long Beach Library, 111 West Park Ave., Long Beach, N.Y.)

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