AN INTERVIEW WITH TOM SHEEHAN
"My earliest memories are of the inner city of Boston where I spent much of my first six years, my father being assigned to the Charlestown Navy Yard in the Marine Corps. It was near-ghetto, a cluster of firetraps and humanity trying to scrabble and get along. A number of my stories and poems have been initiated from that environment and reflect my need and desperate want to be a survivor in spite of the surroundings. So, with the influence of my grandfather, grandmother and father and mother I would have been a reader and a writer regardless of surroundings. Take a look inside Tom Sheehan’s universe. The following interview precedes the first instalment of Tom Sheehan’s novel, An Accountable Death, shortly to be published by 3 AM Magazine.
Guillaume Destot interviews Tom Sheehan
3AM: How did you come to writing?
TP: My paternal grandfather John Igoe was an avid reader and perceptive. At an early age he saw proclivities or bents in my half brother and me and treated us accordingly. To Jim he gave math and algebra problems, demanding solutions the old longhand way, before slide rules and calculators came his way. Jim became a tool and die maker, a mechanic who could tear any engine apart and rebuild it, and ultimately an engineer who was a plant manager for GE. To me he read Yeats’ poems and the works of other writers, and continuously worked on my vocabulary. His voice still hangs with me. He said I had the ear for poetry and writing, and he had some pushing in mind. My early efforts were to please him, for reception there was akin to accomplishment. My maternal grandmother was a bookbinder for more than 60 years, and we of course had an immense early library of books without covers from her in-process book depository. My father and I were hungry readers. I can remember him reading Cappy Ricks and the Green Pea Piratesto me when I was a little more than two years old. Through his rules of the house I read at least two hours a day for nearly fifteen years, until high school sports were at hand, and girls. My first written document was exposed in the third grade. I have been at it ever since.
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3AM: What were your literary influences and what are your preferences now? You mention Whitman several times in your stories…and Proust seems to be hovering somewhere above the clouds…?
TP: Whitman, of course, as well as Proust, were part my early reading, though I was not a student as such but an adventurer looking for words and their exciting connectors. Whitman was there with Yeats when the reading can was kicked open for me, the envelope ripped apart. He held a place because of the sweeping view he tossed at my young hungers and Proust was saying what my grandfather said, “How ignorant we are of ourselves.” Everything we become, what we are, is everything that we have been…and those we meet or befriend in any manner of our journey. That belief has stayed with me.
Early, I found great short stories, entities of their own, in the sweeping passages of Tom Wolfe; the piece about old man Gant on the porch of the hospital (Of Time and the River) where I found myself many years later eyeing the same scenes. I felt blessed finding and reading these pieces in themselves. Now I can find pleasure (if not influence) in many authors, always knowing the wings must spread: Cormac McCarthy from life under Nashville’s crude bridges to his magnificent plains pageants; Wendell Berry in a rustic charm slyly knocking my socks off; Patrick O”Brian taking me and Jack Aubrey to sea; Reynolds Price with some memorable people he keeps finding in his past. I swear that if James Lee Burke’s detective Dave Robicheau or one of Elmore Leonard’s characters walked through my door this minute I would recognize them. My own detective, Harry Krisman, just as vulnerable (he wears a prosthetic foot), is still caught up in my computer, but is also memorable.
My roots, surely, keep making demands for time; James Joyce, Sean O’Faolain, Padraic O’Conaire, Kavanaugh, Seamus Heaney become insistent. Back in the early 80s I introduced Seamus Heaney to an audience of at least 900 people at Boston College gathered to hear a poet read. It was a notable evening.
3AM: Do you read memoirs/autobiographies, and do you value “truthfulness” in such writing?
TP: Because I spend an inordinate amount of hours at this machine, I read memoirs and autobiographies when they are forcibly suggested to me by friends who are very select and avaricious readers; John Burns (teacher), Neil Howland (lawyer and classmate), James Smith (publisher’s acquisitions editor). They swing hammers of great weight. If truthfulness is telling it like it is, yes. The current trend of creative nonfiction gives leeway but it’s difficult if one departs too far from the traveled road. Then it becomes fiction.
3AM: Did you or did you have a day job?
TP: For nearly forty years I was a semi-technical writer for a large corporation writing policies and procedures and generating manuals of all kinds, with considerable work of a public relations nature. During that time I generated fund-raiser books and championship tourney programs for youth sports organizations, class reunions and conservation groups. I have been retired for ten years and have written nine novels, twenty-five short stories, a thousand poems, more or less.
3AM: It is hard to imagine you writing “semi-technical” literature…Was it frustrating, or do you think perhaps it has helped you grow into the writer you are today?
TP: No question in my mind that it helped me grow, the mere discipline of an everyday effort, deadlines, special tasks, varied audiences, all making demands. It was not unpleasant work and I was adept at it. Plus, prior to the computer I purchased the day after I retired, there were no longer five and six secretaries a day “looking for something different to type” in their slow hours.
3AM: Could you tell us about the book you and your friends published about your hometown?
TP: One day in 1998, when John Burns (82) and I (71), two long-time Saugus, MA residents were talking about the town we loved so dear to both of us and of its people, some of them departed, we observed that it is easy to drift from those memories indelibly fixed in our minds to recollections over which a haze is gathering, memories on the soft edge of being forgotten—shortly not to be memories at all. Our conversation turned to the millennium, to the celebration planned for Saugus when the year 2000 would be reached—to the part that memories would play when the town gathered to honor its past, a town fourteen miles from Downtown Boston. We wondered how we could respect and honor what we had forgotten. How could we stay the flight of those scattered memories that have such a flimsy hold on life?
Our response was to produce a book: A Gathering of Memories, Saugus 1900-2000, two years in the making. Here we collected those cast-in-iron events from those years, never-to-be-forgotten, and those more fragile claims of our memories, offered as a living, breathing account of a century in the life of Saugus. There came a constant element in all of it that makes Saugus Saugus, unique in its character, a proud town, without pretense. Remembered were future Pulitzer Prize poet Elizabeth Bishop who spent a year at Saugus High School; a former Saugus high player who participated in the 1958 Giants-Colts overtime game, just voted TV’s top game; a Baker Hill boy who won a Medal of Honor in the rugged country of embattled France too soon after D-Day; two noble brothers of the 10th Mountain Division who died within two weeks of each other in the mountains of Italy; the Campfire leader who took her charges on a night camping trip and woke up in the morning with all their pup tents pitched on the fifth green of the Cedar Glen Golf Course. Here were voices that sang and rang and carried nostalgia and doings too important to leave behind. It was a love affair with our hometown.
We borrowed $60,000 to get the book printed, paid the loan back just four weeks after receipt of copies from the printer on September 6, 2000. We did our own warehousing, packaging, mailing, headed by Bob Wentworth, and in four months sold all 2,000 copies including the last five that were damaged. At last count it has gone to 41 states, six countries and two territories. All proceeds will go to Saugus High School graduate scholarships, to be known as The John Burns Millennium Book Associates Annual Scholarships, John being 63 years in the Saugus High School system and presently still doing some Title 1 work for the school. Hundreds of former students, including Tom Sheehan, say he is the best teacher they have had at any level.
3AM: A rural or semi-rural environment seems to be the foundation of your literary imagination: do you think you could have become a writer in another environment?
TP: My earliest memories are of the inner city of Boston where I spent much of my first six years, my father being assigned to the Charlestown Navy Yard in the Marine Corps. It was near-ghetto, a cluster of firetraps and humanity trying to scrabble and get along. A number of my stories and poems have been initiated from that environment and reflect my need and desperate want to be a survivor in spite of the surroundings. So, with the influence of my grandfather, grandmother and father and mother I would have been a reader and a writer regardless of surroundings. I write heavily of family and place, knowing my subjects, at ease with them, keeping good company in my creative hours. When my brother came home from the Pacific I said in a poem, I never really knew about him/ until he came home/ and I saw his sea bag/ decorated with his wife’s picture/ and a map and the names/ – Saipan – Iwo Jima – Kwajalein/ – the war.
3AM: Do you think that the ever-growing suburbs in America and the standardized lifestyle that seems (for a European who’s never been there, mind you) to rule in these zones are turning “real” places like Saugus
into an endangered species?
TP: No doubt about the changes. I see and measure them daily, starting with the landscape, which every day has a new impact on perimeters of interest, shadows, outlines, the very skylines where our ramparts are permanently breached. But how do you belie on sound logic? The population grows, and they must have shelter. It’s just never going to be the same, so we have to remember it, what it was.
3AM: Is there a reason why some of your stories involve characters who have been irremediably hurt (One Oh for Tillie; A Toast for Skink; Falling-down Jack, A Study)? Is it just the natural flow of your inspiration or do you think that literature ought to give a place to the weak, the silent and the forgotten?
TP: Literature damn well better give them all a shot, for frailty is ours without a doubt and will ever be with us. All our heroes are vulnerable, or they are Supermen. To me they are all remarkable people for one reason or another. Are they here for me, by me? Who knows, but at the end of Jack Winters I say if perhaps I do not remember him, or his like, he will not have been. That is crushing to me. There but for the grace of God, as said. I am warmed thinking of them, of their being real or imaginary regardless of stature, position, influence. I remember my comrades from Korea, here or gone, and the frailest imaginable soldier of all, frightened and glassy-eyed and knowing he is hapless, one foot onto the soil at D-Day, going down, but not to be forgotten, not here.
3AM: There is also a sort of obsession with these characters; they seem to haunt the narrator’s (your?) conscience. Is there a reason apart from the fact that, talking of Skink and Jack, they have something of an absent grandfather figure?
TP: We’ve all done things we wished we hadn’t done or could have done better. With all the love given us by parents and grandparents and friends we still grow our own way, set out for distant vistas, and have dreams. Perhaps it is the letting go that haunts me, for each and everyone counted in my coming this way. It could have been different. Better? Who knows? Do we search for substitutes forever? Separation makes great demands. Lost grandfathers and grandmothers make demands, as do lost parents, siblings, comrades, and friends. I have a friend who is more like my lost brother than any person alive. In forty years we’ve never argued, never given advice. It counts in the haunting, and I know it. My grandfather Johnny Igoe clutches at me to be remembered.
3AM: Is writing for you a way of reclaiming your past (especially your childhood) and making sure it doesn’t fade away?
TP: I think the response above concerning A Gathering of Memories answers this fully. I hate to let any of it go, yesterday or yesteryear. What is here today was framed then. It moves in the memorable occasion when a coach said to me, “I don’t know what you do with your kids, Sheehan, but you ought to clone them.”
3AM: I wouldn’t like to draw you into the fact/fiction question, and therefore won’t ask you what is fictional and what is autobiographical, but how do you dig so deep into emotions, fleeting impressions and even smells that your narrator (or you) experienced quite a while ago?
TP: The digging is part of the truthfulness question you expressed earlier. It is akin to the axiom that the more lies you tell, the harder it is to find the truth in explanation, if needed. The digging is tuning to the old awareness, the file cabinet you have filled with honest experiences, impressions, the senses taking you by the hand so readily. It is trying to be not ignorant of myself and what I have experienced, actually or by mental exercise. Proust and grandfather John Igoe were saying that. I remember the rust left on my leg when it was caught for a fearful second in the wheel spokes of a milk wagon I had hopped on. I was six. My life could have been seriously changed in another second. I have never forgotten that moment; the smell of the horse, sour milk odor, my leg being squeezed by spoke rotation, panic smell in my nose, the sun on my back when I was freed of that rude clasping. Whenever I want that moment, it is here.
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