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Tom Mahony - Writer in the Spotlight

Writer in the Spotlight

2010 Winter 2011

Tom Mahony is a frequent contributor to Boston Literary Magazine, and his new novel, Imperfect Solitude, will be released by Casperian books in December, 2010.

Hey, Tom, it's always nice to see BLMers get their novel published! I hear a lot of horror stories (including my own) about years of trying. How long did it take before Casperian scooped up Imperfect Solitude?

I began writing Imperfect Solitude almost a decade ago. I started sending it out to agents and publishers a couple of years later. After a batch of rejections, Iíd work on something else for awhile, then go back and revise the novel and resubmit. I went through many rounds of this. The novel was rejected well over a hundred times by agents and publishers. Iíd sort of given up on it and was submitting a different novel to Casperian Books when the editor, Lily Richards, declined the novel under consideration and asked to see Imperfect Solitude. A few months later, Imperfect Solitude was accepted for publication.

A good lesson for us all—don't give up! I know this is your first published novel, but do you have others looking for homes?

Yes, I have two other completed novels, Pacific Offering and Flooding Granite. Both are in the same revise-submit-reject-revise death spiral I described for Imperfect Solitude.

Well, if they're anything like Imperfect Solitude, I have a feeling they'll get snapped up too. I know this is a clichť, but I hated putting it down! Imperfect Solitude tackles that discomforting question of ďWhen does the wrong thing become the sort-of-okay thing?Ē and while sometimes the answer is obvious, as your book illustrates, more often it's a matter of context. Or for Evan Nellis, your main character, a matter of desperation and survival. Here's a decent kid looking for love and a way to afford his own place suddenly embroiled in a world of danger and corruption. Was he based on anyone we know?

Like most of my characters, heís created primarily from thin air, stitched together with bits and pieces of real people, my own experiences, and a sip or two of strong ale. Certainly, my background in surfing and biological consulting were important in forming Evanís character and the story in general, but Iím not much like him. My wife insists Iím much more like Gordon (based on the tone of her voice when she says it, I doubt she means that as a compliment).

Uh oh... the word ďcurmudgeonĒ comes to mind! Were any other aspects of the novel autobiographical?

A career in biological consulting exposed me to the basic conflicts in applied science: trying to do good, objective science amidst the countervailing pressures of the real world. And the reality is that things are rarely black and white in field biology. If they were, things would be easy. So youíre always making judgment calls with incomplete information, and your decisions could have big ramifications in terms of both money and environmental protection. Whatever decision you make, somebody is going to be angry (sort of like life in general). You have to maintain your integrity, but often the right answer is unclear. The plot in Imperfect Solitude is completely fictional, but hopefully shows some of the ethical and scientific gray areas in biological consulting.

To me, so many novels fail because the characters are one sided—completely evil or perfect in every way. What struck me over and over about your characters was that they incorporated the good, the bad, and the ambiguous—like real people. You did a great job of showing how even the best of us can be drawn into a deal that seems too good to be true, how no amount of logic or analysis holds power over temptation. And I thought that blended masterfully with your whole theme of the gray region between Right and Wrong.

Thanks for the kind words. That gray region is certainly a major theme in the book. Gradients are a constant source of frustration for a field biologist. You have to delineate discrete boundaries around gradational phenomena, like a wetland/upland boundary. This can lead to intense frustration (I call it Delineation Rage). This whole dilemma extends to life in general—issues of integrity, right and wrong—and is one of the major underpinnings of the book.

I did set out to make the characters as complex as possible. For me, the best characters are basically flawed people trying to do the best they can under difficult circumstances. It can be a tough balance to write. In early drafts, readers thought Evan was too ethical and decent and therefore boring. So I made him edgier, and readers thought he was a creep. It took a lot of tweaking to find a balance, and, still, youíre never going to please everybody. Itís particularly difficult when you want to show a character struggling for redemption. The character can be flawed, but you always want the reader to root for him. Once the reader loses sympathy for a character, itís all over.

So true. The character has to go from here to there and can't start out perfect; but it's tricky to decide how many faults to bestow. The other thing I liked was the way you built the suspense so that I really didn't know what to expect. Nothing is worse than knowing how a book will end even before you're halfway through, and yours really kept me guessing until the end. That almost never happens for me!

Iím pleased it didnít come across as predictable. Thatís one of the hardest parts of writing a novel: holding the readerís interest while keeping them guessing for two or three hundred pages. Itís especially difficult for me, because Iím moderately obtuse when it comes to plotting. Sometimes my wife and I will be reading the same book or watching a show on television, and at the end Iíll say, ďWow, I didnít see that coming.Ē And sheíll say something like, ďSeriously? It was pretty obvious the whole time.Ē

The revision process—including a good critique group, which is invaluable—helps to identify and correct flaws in the plot and the book as a whole. Early drafts of Imperfect Solitude were just horrible. But, while often unpleasant to hear, honest and sometimes tough feedback from readers really forces you to confront weaknesses in a book and revise accordingly. Also, Lily Richards at Casperian Books had some great ideas for revising the plot, which really improved the novel.

They say one of the elements of a successful novel is teaching readers about a subject, and I really enjoyed learning about biological consulting. Was it fun writing about it, or difficult to decide how much detail to go into? I can see how someone might go overboard with the science and put readers to sleep, but I though you included just the right amount to establish yourself as an expert but not go over our heads.

I did enjoy writing about it, because Iím too lazy to do research, so I tend to write about stuff I know well. As a reader, I appreciate books that draw me into an unfamiliar world and maintain authenticity without bogging down the story with excessive detail. The authority of that type of writing really allows for suspension of disbelief. For me, the key is to use technical details and realistic lingo as needed, but put them in context and make them relevant to the story, so even if a reader doesnít understand every detail or bit of jargon, they get the gist of what you are trying to say. Again, the revision process helps with this. Early drafts of the novel probably went overboard in terms of technical details, but all the rewrites helped to scrub away unnecessary words and expose the heart of the story.

Did you have a good experience with Casperian?

Yes, excellent. Iíd highly recommend them. They are well organized and provide great editorial feedback while respecting the writerís work, as well as allowing the writer plenty of input on cover design, marketing, etc.

What's next for you... besides continuing to send your great short fiction to BLM? By the way I tried to figure out the other day if I ever passed on anything you submitted, and I don't think I ever did.

Robin, all your success with BLM has dulled your memory. You rejected the first seven stories I sent you! Seriously. Some of them were pretty bad, so Iíd like to thank you for saving me from public scorn and ridicule.

Oh no, did I? Well, you're welcome... I guess!

As for whatís next, Iíll continue to work on my two other novels, as well as churn out short fiction and whatever other miscellaneous drivel pops into my head.

Your website is www.tommahony.net and here's the link to the book at Casperian. Will we be able to buy copies at Amazon?

Yes, as well as other online booksellers and the occasional independent bookstore.

Good luck with it, and thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us!

Thanks Robin, it was great talking with you.