My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Edward J. Delaney, author of the new novel Broken Irish. Robert Olen Butler had this to say about the novel: “Epic in its scope but relentlessly compelling in its storytelling—not a common combination—Broken Irish is a splendidly readable and richly textured novel." Delaney has been a recipient of a 2008 Literary Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a winner of the 2005 PEN/Winship Award for Fiction. His work has been anthologized in Prize Stories: The O.Henry Awards and in Best American Short Stories. As a journalist he is a past winner of the National Education Reporting Award, and well as other national and regional awards. He has published two other books of fiction, Warp & Weft and The Drowning and Other Stories, and has published short stories in The Atlantic and other magazines and quarterlies. Delaney has directed and produced two documentary films: The Times Were Never So Bad: The Life of Andre Dubus and Library of the Early Mind. Visit his website here.
My First Writing Gig
On January 23, 1982, my writing career began when World Airways Flight 30 touched down on an icy runway at Logan Airport in Boston, but could not stop itself. It skidded off the end of the runway and plunged nose-first into Boston Harbor. Two passengers were lost. I was a graduate student living in a dingy apartment just up from the airport, and, through a friend, I got a strange job.
The plane, a McDonnell-Douglas DC-10, was hauled out of the water the next day and wheeled to a far end of the airport, where it was to be salvaged for parts. My job, starting one snowy night shortly thereafter, was to baby-sit the plane from midnight to 8 a.m., making sure nobody tried to mess with it. I sat in a pickup truck owned by my employer, the John McCourt Company, and ran the motor all night so I could have some heat. Once in a while, the night watchman would drive by and bring me some coffee.
My employers told me they’d come around, and if they caught me sleeping I’d be fired. So I came to work with a backpack full of books, pens and notebooks, intent on getting ahead in my coursework. Of course, I quickly became bored with that, and then with watching plane after plane alight from the runway, heading someplace far more interesting than where I was. Sometime in the depth of the night I decided to try writing fiction. I can’t say why, exactly--I was always a reader but never an aspiring writer. It was a pang of effort built from the sheer stasis of the moment.
I’d read somewhere, probably in high school, that Hemingway had written The Sun Also Rises in six weeks, and that was my singular reference point as to how long these things should take. It happened that six weeks was how long I was to babysit the plane. It all made perfect sense, at least at three in the morning.
I began writing about my hometown, the kind of people there, and the things that happened. I filled a surprising number of pages, but had to admit to even more respect for Hemingway, because I was not close to an actual novel. The fact I’d kept on with it after the first night meant something.
When the job ended and the plane had been laid bare, gutted, de-winged and trucked off to the salvage yard, I put the notebook aside and eventually lost it. Probably a good thing, because if I’d kept it I’d likely be appalled by my own nascent efforts. I remember even as I was writing it, I knew it really wasn’t turning out as it was in my head.
Humbled, I didn’t think about writing fiction again for a long time. I knew I wasn’t good enough. I became a journalist instead. At least you got to write something, and you got a salary and health coverage. In the years doing that, I became better at writing, then eventually felt as if I really was a “writer” (not a “reporter”), and the time came when I started anew with the fiction. Funny thing was, I decided I was still trying to tell the same story. I published short stories and eventually a collection as I labored on with it.
The novel I’d begun so long before was published in 2004. That next spring it won a prize, and I went to the John F. Kennedy Library in South Boston to receive it. From the podium, they had a beautiful view of the Harbor and far across it the airport, with plane after plane still rising into the sky.
If you measure the journey spatially, I’d moved about four miles southwest. If you count in linear time, it took 22 years for that book from the first sentence on a notebook in a pickup truck. If I’d known sitting in my truck that sometimes writing a book took a bit longer than it did for people like Hemingway, I’d likely have thought of something else to stay awake.
Photo by Jennifer Paloulian