Alumni Stories: Dennis Mahoney

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Dennis Mahoney (B.A. 1996) has released his first novel, Fellow MortalsJust published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, it’s been chosen as part of Barnes and Noble’s Discover New Writers for spring 2013.

Booklist writes that “Mahoney’s quietly powerful debut snapshots the lives of suburban neighbors who become bound to one another through an almost unbearably banal yet utterly real tragedy….With the barest glimmer of hope to buoy the calamities of his deeply earnest, lyrical story, Mahoney can share shelf space with Dave Eggers and Stewart O’Nan.”

Dennis  grew up in Troy, got married two years after gradating college, and moved around following jobs throughout his twenties. His wife and he have a nine year old son. They now live in Troy. Dennis did freelance copy writing for several years, and when that dried up, he was close enough to getting a book deal to see it through by remaining a stay-at-home Dad and writing fiction during his son’s school hours. 

You can read Mahoney’s blog here.

Dennis will be reading with Hollis Seamon on March 1 in Huether Hall 200 from 5-7 p.m.

Can you tell me a little about your experience at Saint Rose?

I was a young writer with no practical plan and thought, “Hey! Why don’t I spend the next four years reading a lot?” So I earned a BA in English and took as many writing courses as I could. There was no MFA program back then, so most of my creative writing was extracurricular. I loved my time at Saint Rose. I lived on campus for the first few years and eventually shared an apartment two blocks away with some friends. I once drank a single pint of something called Old Crustacean at Mahar’s (I was of legal age, of course) and it gave me an instant hangover. Do not consume a pint of that beverage.

Describe a memorable moment, professor, or course from The Saint Rose English Department?

I had a course with Kate Cavanaugh and one day she read the lyric of an old song, “I Gave My Love a Cherry.” Right away I started laughing, and Kate was smiling, too, because we were both remembering that scene in Animal House where a guy is playing that song at a frat party. And we were amazed because no one else in the class knew the reference. I’d always thought that viewing Animal House was a college prerequisite.

What did you do after graduating? Did any of your day jobs impact your writing?

You know those old pictures of men riding boxcars with gunny sacks over their shoulders? It was like that for a while, except the boxcars were temp jobs. I did a lot of repetitive office work before my wife and I moved to New Jersey and got jobs in Manhattan. I spent a few years crunching Nielsen ratings at The Hallmark Channel. My coworkers were terrific people, the opposite of bad cliches about NYC corporate types, but I wasn’t cut out for TV research.

Eventually I landed a copy writing job with an academic publisher in Connecticut, and then I became a stay-at-home Dad when our son Jack was born. I actually wrote more, and better, when my time was limited or strictly disciplined. I’m naturally inclined to laziness, so constraints are helpful, especially when they’re self-imposed.

What specifically from your experience at Saint Rose helped you prepare for a writing career?

Four years of swimming in books and daydreaming made me an idealist, for better or worse. The downside of being a literary idealist was that I took myself too seriously after college, and was stupidly judgmental of people who’d committed themselves to “regular careers.” The upside was that I kept writing, in spite of constant rejection, long after a more reasonable person would have packed it in. If my hopes hadn’t gotten so high in my years at Saint Rose — if I hadn’t been so kindly encouraged — I might have quit when my first few novels didn’t get published.

What inspired you to write Fellow Mortals? Can you elaborate on the process of writing your first novel?

This “first novel” of mine is really my fifth or sixth. An agent once told me that nearly every author she wound up representing had written at least two failed books before landing a deal. Fellow Mortals is the third I’ve written since I really got disciplined in my early 30s.

I began with the main character, Henry Cooper, who was based on a minor character in an earlier novel of mine that hadn’t worked out. I loved the character — an unstoppable optimist — and thought he could drive a whole book. One of my mistakes in previous books was having interesting things happen to my main characters, when it really needs to be the characters making interesting things happen. Henry’s an active, big-hearted man, so the book’s tragic fire — a fire he himself started — gave him ample motivation to act, and make mistakes, and affect everyone around him. He created and faced his own conflicts.

Are you currently working on any new projects?

I’m halfway through a very long novel. It’s set in an alternate Colonial America, spans two decades and two continents, and has a non-chronological mystery at its center. For the first time in my career, I spent entire seasons researching and planning a story start to finish, and I’ve found that the extra prep loosened me up creatively. I took bigger risks, because why not go for broke when it’s only an outline? Now that it’s carefully mapped, I can focus all my energy on the actual telling of the story. I love working on it, and I love my main character, a young woman named Molly, who’s another troublemaking optimist.

As an alum, do you have any advice for aspiring writers and English majors?

I regret wasting so much of my 20s. A huge amount of my time went to writing half-baked blog posts and wishing I were a successful author. When I finally got serious about finishing a novel, I set daily goals, either a minimum word count or a minimum number of hours. A single page a day could be a whole first draft in a year. You’re better off doing that than trying to establish an online presence, or writing shorter pieces just to build a resume (unless you’re a short-story writer!). Agents and editors will take notice if you’ve gotten smaller things published, but it’s not a requirement. Write a good book and they’ll give it a look, even if you haven’t placed stories in a dozen lit journals.

Big-picture: It’s all about tenacity. If you do anything consistently for years, you’re bound to get good at it. More than anything else, find a way to enjoy the daily work, because even if all goes well and you get a book published, the fanfare comes and goes really quickly for most authors, and then you’re back to working on the next one. It’s a crazy way to live unless you love it.

Fellow Mortals  is published by Farar, Straus, and Giroux and is released this week.

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