Flanagan’s empire

By MICHAEL ATCHISON  |  February 5, 2010

One of the things I had to be careful about, the characters sort of dislike everything that happens after 1972. They don't like Bowie and they're completely dumbfounded by punk rock and they hate rap. One of the things that's always potentially embarrassing for a writer is that you're articulating the thoughts of characters who you may not agree with. You're writing these scenes, and you go, "People are going to think I'm the most closed-minded old crab in the world." But that's what the characters think. Those guys go to CBGB's and they don't get it at all. They say, "This band really needs a conga player and a chick singer."

AT THE SAME TIME, THERE ARE MOMENTS WHERE JACK SAYS THINGS THAT SEEM LIKE THOUGHTS THAT HAVE BEEN PERCOLATING IN YOUR HEAD FOR YEARS. FOR INSTANCE, AT THAT MOMENT IN THE EARLY 1990S WHEN ALL THE NEW ROCK STARS SEEMED RELUCTANT TO BE IN THE SPOTLIGHT, JACK SAYS, "THE IDEA OF ROCK AS BEING SOMETHING OBSCURE, ONLY FOR THE COOL KIDS, WAS ANTITHETICAL TO THE PURPOSE OF THE FORM." I READ THAT AND THOUGHT THAT'S PROBABLY HOW YOU FEEL. In that case it is, though he's a little tougher on some of those people than I would be. In the case of someone like Pearl Jam, they probably did a very wise thing to protect their music, which is why they're still going and all those other bands are broken up. With my other books, very smart people writing about them have assumed that the characters are speaking for me. I don't really look at it that way. I'm pretty capable of making a passionate case for something that I completely disagree with personally. Because I want the characters to be vivid. When I'm writing [I think], "I know a lot of guys like this. How would they feel?" And then I try and make the case. And hopefully somewhere in the book someone makes an opposing case. Danny Finnerty gives a stirring defense of hip-hop to Jack. I kind of agree with what he says, but it's not something I would say. But you want to be true to the characters.

JACK WAS RAISED IN AN IRISH CATHOLIC FAMILY. DURING HIS LIFE, HE LEAVES HIS FAITH, BUT IT NEVER LEAVES HIM. HOW CENTRAL TO YOUR CONCEPTION OF FLYNN WAS HIS CATHOLICISM? It became very central, and it became a great clue. When I was writing sample chapters and an outline to show to my editor, it was only incidental and his name wasn't Flynn, it was Jack Fox. I mentioned that he was Irish Catholic just to sort of say that he was the low man on the totem pole at the law firm, that it was old protestant England, and they still looked down on Irish Catholics as being sort of peasants. Scott Moyers, who started out as the editor of this novel and then became my agent, said, "You should make sure you say, 'What does that mean and how does it make him separate?' " And then Scott said something that became very important to the book. He said, "Everyone who writes about the '60s writes about how fantastic it was, the liberation, we were living in black-and-white and everything became Technicolor. Make sure you also write about what was lost." And those two things together really informed the character. I said, "That's more than a clue, that's a mandate." I can write this guy as someone who never really felt he fit in, never totally bought in. And then it became that his parents are going to be really wonderful people. He's going to have a conservative upbringing that is actually a tremendous comfort and joy to him. It really made the character rich, and helped to provide a contrast between the sort of modern, hedonistic life that he and the other characters were experiencing, and this feeling that "this is not the life I was meant to live." That sense of regret, which really enriched the whole thing. As the Catholic and Irish thing became more pronounced, I realized he needed a name that was immediately recognizable as Irish. And Flynn is my mother's family's name. My grandfather, three of my cousins, and my uncle all were named Jack Flynn. I have a number of relatives who are happy that I wrote a book about them.

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