The Second Death of Brian Moore

(Originally published on The Huffington Post)

I’ve been thinking about the Irish novelist, Brian Moore, a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I’m teaching one of his novels right now and that has nudged me to think about the huge impact he had on my own understanding of story. Plus, my mother was born in Northern Ireland, and because of this I was drawn to his earlier novels, which take place in Belfast. Moore abandoned Northern Ireland after World War II and moved to North America where he went on to write 20 novels and win a slew of awards. Before his death in 1999 he was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. The guy was prolific–he produced a novel every other year–and he was totally devoted to his art. But as I look on the internet, he’s almost nowhere to be found. It’s like Brian Moore has suffered a second death.

To be fair, I didn’t really notice his absence on the internet until I was prepping for class the other day. I thought it might be nice for my students to see a TV interview with him. But I found nothing. Radio interview? Nothing. How about a webpage devoted to his life and his powerful novels? Again, almost nothing.

Even though he did plenty of radio and television interviews, I’m beginning to realize that his death in 1999 meant that no one thought to digitize these interviews and put them on the web. He died before the internet took off and became the warehouse of information and entertainment that we know it to be. Not being on the web nowadays means that you don’t quite exist, and as I thought about this electronic absence, I began to feel like he was dying all over again.

Go on. Check the internet for TV or radio interviews with him. Aside from a short 46 second clip from a documentary (this one), you won’t find anything.

Go on. Check. I’ll wait for you…

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Brian Moore (pronounced the Irish way, Bree-an) was a writer’s writer. He led a monkish existence that orbited around the written word, he crafted books that challenged convention, and he is generally lauded as one of the best male writers of female characters in the twentieth-century (if don’t believe me, read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne or I am Mary Dunne or The Doctor’s Wife). He also put Belfast on the literary map and it’s arguable that he captures the city, pre-Troubles and violence, in a way that no one else ever did. His relationship to Ireland, Catholicism, and nationalism was testy at best, but it helped him produce some incredible novels. For me, I return to his work again and again because I see a master storyteller at work. Alfred Hitchcock thought he could spin a good yarn too, and commissioned him to write Torn Curtain.

My favorite novels? In no particular order I’d have to say Judith Hearne, Fergus, The Great Victorian Collection, The Magician’s Wife, Catholics, and The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Man I love that last one. It’s not his best, but he writes about the Blitz on Belfast in 1941 in a way that’s totally mesmerizing. I read that novel in one sitting. And when I finished it, I reached for another novel.

I plowed through all of his work in under two months.

While living in Belfast in the early-1990s, I heard that his childhood home was all but destroyed. Apparently the IRA was using it as a sniper’s nest to pick off British soldiers, so it was torn down. When I arrived, it was surrounded by a metal fence–only the kitchen floor remained. I’d heard that everything was going to be smothered under a thick layer of asphalt to make way for a parking lot, so I decided to take a chunk of the floor. Why not? Why not preserve something of literary history?

That’s when I heard the click-click of a round being put into the chamber of a machine gun. I looked up and saw a British soldier aiming his weapon at me. My chest was in his crosshairs.

“What’re you doing here?” he barked.

I raised my hands with part of Moore’s childhood in my fist and explained. The soldier shook his head and told me to bugger off. “This is a restricted area. See that fence? Get out of here.”

And I did get out. Quickly, I might add.

To the best of my knowledge, the only part of Moore’s childhood home in Belfast is now in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s a paperweight on my desk. As a matter of fact, it’s sitting under the monitor as I type this very sentence.

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Sadly, I never got a chance to meet Moore face-to-face, but we chatted on the phone once. I was the last person to interview him before he died, and I remember saying that I hoped we could meet up one day, perhaps in Belfast. But he passed away, unexpectedly, on January 10, 1999.

I’m delighted that my current students seem to be captivated by Judith Hearne (I’m teaching it right now) and some of them have already searched out his other novels. This tells me the legacy of Brian Moore will be just fine. I just wish that his presence on the internet was stronger–a web page, links to radio interviews, TV interviews, maybe a list of the movies that have been made of his books.

It’s also a good reminder for me that the internet doesn’t house everything. We’d like to think it does, but it has plenty of gaps, holes, and missing pieces. One of these sizable holes, at least  for me, happens whenever I search for “Brian Moore novelist” and I don’t see any videos or radio links. His obituaries pop up, but that’s about all.

Maybe that’s why I wrote this. Maybe I wanted to do something that would bring new readers towards him.

He’s worth your time. I promise.

So What’s it Like to do a Radio Interview?

A friend asked me what it’s like to be on the radio a few days ago, and my short answer was, “It’s fun.” It’s more complicated than this, of course, so I thought I might use a few pixels here to explain what it’s like to speak into a microphone and to know that tens of thousands—maybe even hundreds of thousands—of people are listening to you.

There are two basic ways your voice is sent shooting through the atmosphere for a radio interview: 1) you call in on a phone or 2) you step into a studio. My first radio gig happened in 2005 when I appeared on Minnesota Public Radio. We were talking about Tim O’Brien’s masterful novel, The Things They Carried, and since I’ve read that book I-don’t-know-how-many-times I wasn’t worried about the questions. I sat in my office with my door closed and held the phone to my ear with both hands. I knew that I was going to be patched in at any second. When it happened, I heard my name, and then a question.

I paused.

A few words tumbled out of my mouth but when I thought about how many people were out there listening to me, my throat tightened. I thought of cars driving on long ribbons of highway, of farmers peeling back rich layers of earth with their tractors, of parents eating at a table—and they all waited for me to speak.

I panicked at the thought of them leaning in, waiting for my tongue to work.

With closed eyes, I told myself to get it together.

I have no idea what I finally said, but it must have been decent enough because I stayed on the show for another 30 minutes. And with each passing second, I felt more at ease.

Since then, I’ve appeared on the radio maybe 30 times. I like it. It’s fun. Doing a radio interview from your office feels like a normal conversation and it’s easy to forget that thousands of people are eavesdropping on what you and the host are saying. A good interviewer will make you feel like you’re talking over a tall cup of coffee.

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Then there’s the other type of interview: the one that takes place in a studio. I prefer this one because you’ve got a fancy set of headphones on and the microphone is hanging before you like a weird metal fruit. I have to remind myself not to uncross my legs or shuffle paper because the mic picks up everything. Plus you’ve got all of these dials and blinking lights in front of you. Best of all though, you’re sitting across from the host and you’re able to read her or his face. You pick up expressions you’d miss on the phone and the conversation feels more natural. It’s also helpful to have a large atomic clock next to you—it counts down how many seconds you’ve got left on the program. Have you ever wondered how radio guests seem to talk for just the right length of time? Well, that’s your answer. All you have to do is glance at the wall and you’ll see that you’ve got 40 seconds left . . . 39 . . . 38 . . . 37 . . .

I enjoy doing radio and whenever I’m contacted about being on a show I almost always say “yes.” It’s an honor to be piped into cars and homes and work spaces. You become a guest in the space of strangers. And as these strangers listen to me, I hope they might nod their head at something I’ve said.

The truly weird part about doing radio though? I mean, the truly mind-blowing part of it all? It’s the realization that nothing else I’ve ever done (or will ever do in the future) will last longer. This isn’t arrogance on my part; it’s physics. At this very moment, all of the interviews I’ve done are speeding across our little solar system and at some point in time they will cross the distant edge of the sun’s gravity. My voice will pulse out into the void and keep on going. Like a message in a bottle, my voice is corked inside radio waves, which will keep on riding through space long after I’m gone. A thousand years from now all you need to do is tune in and I’ll still be there, whispering in the dark.

Patrick Hicks is the author of over ten books, most recently The Commandant of Lubizec (Steerforth/Random House) and The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press).

Pan Am 103 and “57 Gatwick”

On December 21, 1988, a commercial airliner exploded over Scotland, killing 259 people. Burning luggage, seats, and bodies rained down through the night onto the little town of Lockerbie. It wasn’t until the sun came up the following morning that the full scope of the horror became clear to those on the ground—as well as the world.

This was Pan Am 103, and it shocked everyone because, at the time, it was the worst act of aviation terrorism the world had ever seen. Nothing would surpass it until a fateful day in September 2001. Even now, whenever I’m on a 747, I sometimes imagine my long fall to the ground. Maybe everyone secretly thinks about this as we buckle ourselves into a plane. Maybe you do this? I suspect this is a common fear that crawls around inside our skulls, and although the name “Pan Am 103” might not mean anything to someone under the age of twenty-five, it really should mean something. I worry that this moment in history is being forgotten about. I worry that those 259 lives—and the families who continue to love them—are slipping from our collective memory.

I guess that’s one reason I wrote “57 Gatwick.” It’s the first story in my latest book, The Collector of Names but, of that, more in a minute. Let’s get back to Pan Am 103, which is far more important.

120522083234-pan-am-103-horizontal-galleryOn the night of the bombing, Colin Patterson was a member of the Dumfries/Galloway District Council for Mapping and Zoning. It was his job to map where the bodies had fallen as well as pinpoint the final resting place of the engines, the wheels, the nosecone, and anything else that might prove helpful to the investigation. Colin worked in the debris field and, by default, he became the liaison for the grieving families. He got to know them all by name, especially when they wanted to know where their loved ones had landed after their long fall through the night. He even helped design the memorial, which stands in Lockerbie today.

Colin is a member of my family and it’s for this reason that I’m not using his real name—I want to protect his privacy. He’s talked to my parents and sisters about what he saw that night and, years after the wreckage was cleaned up, he continued to usher families around Lockerbie with gentle reverence. So it seemed natural on the 20th anniversary of Pan Am 103 to write an essay about his experiences. Back in 2008, I wanted to fly over to Scotland and spend a few days with him to get the story right. I wanted to pay homage to these lost souls.

Colin, however, found it all too painful and politely said no. He apologized, but he just didn’t want to revisit that time of his life. And who can blame him? It would be like asking a firefighter to walk around Ground Zero and talk about what he saw on September 11. Veterans are like this too. Many of them simply don’t want to talk about what they saw in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I respected his decision but, as the weeks went by, the story of Pan Am 103 kept gnawing at me.

Rather than shelve the idea, I decided to transform this real life story into a work of fiction that eventually became “57 Gatwick.” My main character is loosely based upon Colin, but I knew he had to become his own person. I didn’t want “57 Gatwick” to be just a fictionalized retelling of Pan Am 103. I wanted the reader to relate to the protagonist, to feel the fear that filled up his whole body, and more than anything, I wanted to honor the dead that inspired the story.

My short fiction is usually rooted in my native Minnesota, so when I decided to move ahead with the project I began to consider flight paths out of Minneapolis/Saint Paul. I began to see a Boeing 747 exploding at 30,000 feet and, if I closed my eyes, I could almost see it. I imagined it falling to earth and I saw the lights of Duluth far down below. At such a great height, how long would it take for a person to hit the ground? (Answer: about seven minutes).

The explosion would have blown people a part, and passengers who survived the initial blast would be strapped into their seats when they hit the ground at 120 miles per hour. All of this made “57 Gatwick” very difficult to write because the people on that plane, they felt—there’s no other way to describe this—they felt real to me. Mothers and husbands and sisters and friends and grandsons, they all disappeared and I felt a strong sense of responsibility to get their stories right.

The issue of what historical details to use and which to shelve was also crucial. I talked to my family about things they remembered Colin saying when he showed them around. They squinted into the distance and told me things that I’d never come up with on my own. The stink of jet fuel was everywhere in Lockerbie. Cadaver dogs were used to locate bodies and, one after another, these animals died of cancer due to the petrochemicals that soaked the ground. These details make “57 Gatwick” feel authentic. Maybe it’s a good example of how nonfiction can make fiction feel more real.

My family also helped me to understand how seriously Colin took his job. The respect he had for the dead, how he never forgot that families were grieving, and how he conducted his job as though it were an act of love—that, that, was important for me to write about. And it’s true. My protagonist in “57 Gatwick” cares deeply about the grieving families and he acts this way because that’s exactly what happened in Lockerbie.

Garden_of_Remembrance_-_Pan_Am_103_-_geograph.org.uk_-_672473Writing “57 Gatwick” was a powerful experience for me, and in many ways it helped to shape the writer that I’ve become. I’m so pleased it’s the lead story in The Collector of Names, and if Colin Patterson or anyone else who is intimately tied to Pan Am 103 ever reads it, I hope I got the story right. I hope that “57 Gatwick” feels correct, and whole, and respectful. More than anything, I hope I’ve written something beautiful that might rise out of the wreckage of that plane.

Note: Some of this blog post was published, in a different form, in The Writer magazine.