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'The Outside Boy': My Journey From Memoirist To First-Time Novelist

Posted: 06/01/10 04:29 PM ET

My editor once remarked that it was "interesting," given my background in sales and publishing, that I chose to write about Irish gypsies in 1959 -- not exactly the most commercial topic ever. But for me it seemed obvious: after writing my memoir, A Rip in Heaven, about my brother's survival of a violent crime in which two of my cousins were raped and killed, I wanted to get as far away from writing about my life as possible. I'd had enough of ripping open the emotional scars of my childhood for other people's examination. Or so I thought.

Writing about Ireland was a natural choice -- I come from an American-Irish family. We were raised on a stern diet of Yeats, the Clancy Brothers, and skewed politics. I spent wonderful years living in Ireland, and then I moved to New York and found myself a west-coast Irishman to marry. When I started writing my novel The Outside Boy, I looked beyond the mainstream Irish tradition, and chose to set my story among Irish Travellers because I felt theirs was a community that was largely misrepresented. But I also chose them as my subject because they were so different from me, so foreign. I needed the comfort of that anonymity.

So imagine my surprise when, several hundred pages into the narrative, I started recognizing familiar traits in my narrator, Christy. He is a nomad, whose family moves every few weeks; my dad was in the Navy, so our family moved every couple of years when I was little. Christy feels torn between two cultures and slightly rejected by both; I'm an American, with Irish and Puerto Rican heritage, and have struggled with issues of identity at times. Claustrophobia? Yeah, Christy and I both have that. So much for emotional distance.

I've never tried to outrun my traumas. If anything, I've dwelled too much in them. For years after my cousins were murdered, I immersed myself in that loss with the determination of a super-monk. When I was ready to heal, I was lucky enough to have a foundation of faith and family. Writing my memoir also helped.

But trauma leaks, no matter how vigorously you guard against it. With the passage of time, the fallout may slow from a deluge to a trickle, but it never dries up completely. I still shudder when I see the gap in my sky where the twin towers used to be. So I chose to write fiction, and I developed characters who felt reassuringly insulated - at first. But in the end, I could have dressed them up as storm troopers or hobbits or politicians. I could have sent them to the prairie, or Uranus, or even Los Angeles. It wouldn't have mattered. These characters are still my family; they're still me.

After I realized my folly, I read back through the manuscript looking for clues, for links between the characters and my life. Even then, I was surprised by the rawness of the associations -- by how much of my personal grief and triumph saturated the book. This really is the story of a boy whose life changes forever in a single, lynchpin moment that can never be undone.

At first, I felt disappointed by my unwitting self-indulgence. Then I got over it. The best of fiction has always reached beyond gender, culture, class, and pigment. It speaks into the place of our collective humanity. It shows us the acute ways in which we are all the same. And we can't get to that place without clawing out our own insides and having a good look around.