Thomas Sheehan's writing, in his own words, "is rooted in what I know, where I've been, who I know." Yet his narratives are not just rote lists of place, time and whomever. Like Colonial antique furniture, his stories exude an authenticity that transcends master craftsmanship, and gives them a timeless quality that is hard to put a price on. A writer of prodigious gifts and output, Sheehan's published four novels, twenty-five short stories and 1,000 poems, give-or-take, since retiring from his day job over ten years ago. He's won prizes, received Pushcart Prize nominations and basically ripped it up for some time now. Not bad for a man who's been around since before the Great Depression.
Steven Hansen: I've noticed some of your past interviewers have been hung up on whether your tales should be categorized as memoir or short story. This distinction, in my opinion, is beside the point. What's your take on this obsessive need to nail down everything with a specific label?
Tom Sheehan: I think it mainly is a moment's interpretation, and may not be obsessive. The classification does not bother me except that I know where I am swinging from. It's as if an interviewer may stumble on the believability of hermit's home and death bed in a cave and somehow can't really believe it, or a 7-year-old kid can come up with the barrel threat in The Great God Shove. But I was a survivor at an early age. I had to be. I am here and closing on 77 in about 47 days.
SH: I had that barrel trick you pulled on the bully in The Great God Shove as a creative embellishment, but you're saying you really did that? I don't think I could have thought of that mode of revenge now, let alone when I was seven!
TS: To this moment I can hear my father, three stripes up and three stripes down on his sleeve, saying I had brains and had to use them. I stole the rolls of tape, I brought ashes back up from the cellar (though soaked down and fearing fire) and planned the whole thing. It was a joy. There were also times of being nearly accosted and getting my way out of it. It was at times as easy as sliding down the drain pipe. I knew I was being depended on. I have a hundred stories; well, half a hundred, of encounters where brains and trickery were needed. God knows I wouldn't want my kids to have grown up in that environment, though they would have handled it admirably. One coach said to me a few years ago, "Sheehan, I don't know what you do with your kids, but you ought to clone them." I was peacock proud, as he had coached two boys for four years.
SH: But your stories are so well crafted. Not everything in your memoir A Collection of Friends actually happened, I'll wager. Picasso once said, "Art is a lie that tells the truth." This axiom applies to at least some of your stories, right? Or am I all wet?
TS: Do you wish to call it creative nonfiction? Few of the names are in place but most of the actions are. I stretched a bit on "Wingsy," interpreting much of his looks or grimaces and gestures as a kid, and really worked on Sherman's letter to me that was a very basic and simple reply in my search for information.
Okay, the axiom applies, and Picasso and I agree on this point, and I'm in good company, just as I was with Frank Parkie Parkinson who told horrible tales of his time in North Africa and could manage to say, every now and then, "Tom, you're fucking literate!" God, I loved that drunk, that warrior, that dear friend whose grave I cap with a flag every Memorial Day at our yearly commemoration, now near 25 years. I weep with his loss.
I can still see the Coalman in a corner of the stands at our football field; I figured I was the only one ever to know the pain; and I remembered it!
SH: Truly, I don't wish to label it anything but wonderful story telling. In a way (or at least in my way of thinking) all stories are fictionalized through the frame of their conveyor, or something like that. The truly gifted story tellers know how to transform their common every day experiences into something universal. Like in Fred Rippon's Mushroom House wherein you've managed to imbue horse shit with a deeper meaning. Now that's some fancy literary footwork.
TS: My God, Steve, I loved doing that mushroom house piece. Pete Tura passed on not too long ago, one of my early heroes that few know about today, except I kept him here for those who may read about him. That's my commission, extending his memory, that of his pals, his comrades, mine. I don't know where Manuel and Bobby Lightizer ended up or Don Ryder.
On the fictionalizing account, sure, I agree it's interpretation, how I saw what I was seeing or feeling, what I read of another's face or gesture. In the mushroom house piece, I bet more than 1000 words were cut, but I could not let go of what brought me back to it: the smells, the fields in winter, the weight of a basket on my young shoulders threatening to force me to quit before the day was done, and never letting go of it. Courage. Sucking up the gut. Surviving. So that now, all these years later, all of it is alive all around me... the tastes, the smells, the ripe airs, the girls peeking at us from behind bushes in their signaling, later seeing a pair of white underpants as the same part of those signals. I even remember her name.
SH: There is a sense in many or all of the stories of A Collection of Friends that these are remembrances that you feel very strongly should not fade away.
TS: From the outset, from the very dedication, I have said it:
For those who have passed through Saugus, those comrades who bravely walked away from home and fell elsewhere, and the frailest imaginable soldier of all, frightened and glassy-eyed and knowing he is hapless, one foot onto the soil at D-Day or a statistical sandy beach of the South Pacific and going down, but not to be forgotten, not here.
I mean every word of that.
A few years ago we borrowed $60K from a local bank to print a book not yet written. Ten pals each signed a $6k note. It was a book about our hometown, how we wanted to keep what was escaping us, the memories, the fragile memories. We paid the bank off in five months. We sold 2500 copies at $42 each and have a self-sustaining account for scholarships for Saugus High School students. Four kids have been helped in college. It's the John Burns Millennium Book Associates Scholarship. John is 89 years old and was coeditor with me; he was an English teacher in the Saugus school system for 63 years and I know hundreds of people who say he was the best teacher they had at any level. And we wanted to keep our memories intact. The book was called, A Gathering of Memories, Saugus 1900-2000.
A Collection of Friends is my extension of that activity.
SH: Wingsy, Parkie, The Coalman and The Quiet Empty Rooms of Saugus make up the section of A Collection of Friends titled "War Stories" and are, in my opinion, some of the most powerful stories I have ever read. You do not, at least in this book, treat your Korean War experience with much more than a passing notice. Was this by design? Is it easier to write of others' wars than of your own?
TS: Today, at our Riverside Cemetery, in the Veterans' Section, Wingsy lies a grave apart from Eddie McCarthy. They died a year apart in Korea. I was there then. I am here now. That's a tough issue to face: how come me and not them? Or how come them and not me? I could get paralyzed with that thought, but something kicks in, the survivor bit. But I do not forget.
I spoke at our most recent Veterans' Day ceremony; it was extremely tough until I caught the flash in a pair of eyes, another survivor who is a most noble man. It took me to a poem about my brother Jim, who came back from the Pacific war, I said,
I never really knew about him
until he came home
and I saw his seabag
decorated with his wife's picture
and a map and the names
They were my heroes, then it was my turn. In another poem, In Cold Fields, I say:
Oh, Eddie's brother not yet home
from someplace in World War II,
Zeke's brother who owned the soul of
every pitcher he ever caught,
a shortstop the Cards owned, Spillane, I think, his name;
and in that great silence out there
Billy centerfield left his arm in
Kwajalein debris. Oh, brotherless we played our game,
no deep outfield, no zing to pitch,
no speed, no power, loveless without a big brother
to show our growing.
And then, not long after the Braves
rode that mighty crest,
our turn came,
and we left our brothers on
corners, in cold fields,
we long ball hitters.
Your comment here is very interesting, for another person said: "'Parkie' is simply one of the finest war stories I've read. Your description of the men's suffering is horrific. Shades of Tim O’Brien. Say, is that one true? Did Rommel really shoot that man?"
SH: Did Rommel shoot that SS son of a bitch... see that's the fun of it all. Wondering where the poetic license kicks in. Anyhow. You're a poet, too. When I was researching you and thinking about your stories this verse came to mind from Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'Ulysses.'
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move...
Does this strike any chords?
TS: I don't think Parkie ever qualified that answer as total fact. It might have been a shot beside the head and the Legend of the Tiger extended. He said they never saw the guy upright again. Was it planned? Who knows, but I prefer not to think so.
Yuh, makes me think of McDonald's, and the Golden Arch in St. Louis on the way to Korea on a troop train, and all that has passed through my hands, past my eyes, into my memory. My wife heads an Alzheimer's unit; I hear the terrors at night about those who forget; pray for me.
SH: McDonalds! I don't know about you, but I could go for a McRib right about now. Anyhow. Leave it to you to acquaint Tennyson with the Golden Arches.
But seriously, speaking of your age, you have published in a ton of e-zines. How'd a guy who probably thought the Royal manual typewriter the pinnacle of technology adapt so quickly to the revolution of the World Wide Web?
TS: Here's the story. I worked for Raytheon as a semi-tech writer and analyst for 35 years, mostly being a one-man band. There were at times 6-7 secretaries that would crowd the door of my office in the morning looking for "something different to type," like poems or short stories or parts of novels. The day I retired, they were gone. My kids took me to a computer store and bought me my first computer, a Mac with a screen like a postage stamp. It now lies across the room, on the floor, frozen in place. I swear there are poems and stories/memoirs in there that I can't remember writing. Any way, they bought me a new Dell about 10 months ago, the third computer for the old man. They also sent Beth and I back to Ireland, where we went on our honeymoon 30 years ago, for our 30th anniversary.
And it was not just the Royal. I had 5 typewriters in the house (cellar, bedroom, garage, den, floater) and I never left one without a piece of paper in it and a line from a poem or an idea, convincing myself that while I was away from it, it would be working. You know how that goes. I got some poems of character out of that exercise.
SH: What an anniversary gift! If you were able to clone those kids, like that coach said, they might have been able to afford a castle in County Cork.
TS: You are right on that account, Steve. Matt and Jamie may be in shape to do it someday. Matt is in year two of his MBA at Penn State on a full-boat scholarship and Jamie just started his own company, Sheehan Development and Construction Co. He's 25 and Matt's 29 and he's being chased at the minute by some powerful corporate guys.
SH: That last 'being chased by some powerful corporate guys' sounds ominous, like a Grisham novel almost. Let's hope he'll be OK! But getting back to Ireland, were you able to visit any of the haunts of your grandfather and literary inspiration, Johnny Igoe?
TS: The corporate guys are IBM, Accenture and some other huge conglomerate who seek him as an employee. He did his summer internship with IBM in Fairfax, VA, and when we visited he took me to all the war memorials.
From my journal:
Beth and Tom, weary travelers who had been up for 20 hours, were met at Logan Airport by daughter Betsy with her children; Alexa running down the concourse screaming, "Grandma, Grandma, I'm in kindergarten now," while dressed to the nines as little blonde girls should be and stealing glances from everybody on the crowded concourse. Then impish but most lovable 2-year-old Bobby, angelic yet of eye, hugging my leg and saying "Gampa! Gampa!" and Travis, 10 months, still smiling the way we left him, never crying, his chubby little arms and legs waving like pennants his glee and innate happiness at seeing these old faces; and son Jamie, master carpenter, reader of all things Irish, who once felt his roots shudder through him with his brother Matt a few years ago on Slea Head Beach at midnight, alone with the Irish waves and the Irish stars, who drove the whole gang in and back home from the airport.
The eyes are so pleased at times that the heart sees.
On a noon Monday two weeks ago I stood up in an Elphin, Roscommon pub, a Guinness pint in hand, and said aloud to the dozen men at the bar, "Gentlemen, do any of you remember Peter and Joseph Cassidy who 30 years ago when we were here on our honeymoon lived outside of town near the statue to The Rising. They were well into their 70s then and long gone now, but I'd like to know if anybody remembers them."
Before the names were out of my mouth, I heard one voice say, "Here's another Yank with another story."
All hell broke loose at the bar, though, eyes twinkled, smiles came galore, and one man leaped off his stool. "Eddie the Fiddler!" he yelled. "If Peter and Joseph were relatives of yours, Eddie the Fiddler is." He yelled to the barkeep, "Dermot, get Eddie on the phone!"
Twenty minutes later I thought my grandfather Johnny Igoe was walking through the door. It was a cousin of mine, Eddie Cassidy, in his sixties, I had never met and had not known about. We had a ball!
It was a great trip and when an Irish female pilot set the Airbus down at Logan like it was a powder puff, Beth slapped me on the knee and said, "When do you want to go back?" It may be sooner than I thought.
SH: Family and friends make ones life rich, indeed. But what is the writing all about? All the poems, the stories and the novels... is there something deep within each writer who longs to be better remembered for the manuscripts they left behind than the memories their good works engendered? What of Solomon's admonition, "All is vanity"?
TS: I couldn't care less about the vanity angle, if it were never to get in the way of saving, preserving something worthwhile to be remembered. Of course, I make that judgment. I hear echoes of years in the swift crumbling. My grandfather's voice and my father's and my mother's and my brother's. They can't be kept in a vacuum, in the solitude of one mind, reachless. I try not to let them pass. My mother said, "Simon did not find me. I found him." Down the line, perhaps, grandson Jasper, in Maine, now writing poems at 7, (he just finished one about robots and said, in closing, "Robots do not need to sleep.") will hear those words and understand the intent. Or hear Johnny Igoe's words, "Feel the grasp of words."
It is not manuscripts that count but the message they express. I know all paper, in time, gets recycled. If I miss your point, and Solomon's, forgive me.
SH: Solomon was a rather dour guy in his old age, it's true. If you could give advice to a young person who might think they want to be a writer, what would that be?
TS: If you want to write, read. Read voraciously. Mother Tongue and Notes on A Small Island by Bill Bryson; Big Bend & Other Stories by Bill Roorbach; Absolute Friends by John LeCarre; Ice Lake and City of Ice by John Farrow (Trevor Ferguson), Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard; poetry by Heaney and Yeats and Frost and Auden and Emily; Ondaatje's The English Patient; Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried; John Lescroart's The Hearing, and The Oath; Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy; John F, Nims' poem "Shot Down at Night;" Don Quixote, then go write.