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Roger Burke Dooley

AS I WRITE, MY FOURTH NOVEL, GONE TOMORROW, has just been published. At such a time, of course, no writer can help feeling proud, excited, and well disposed toward all the world-but in this particular instance my own personal satisfaction goes far deeper than ever before. What makes this the unique milestone of my writing career so far is that it marks the ultimate realization of the boyhood dream that has been closest to my heart ever since I was fourteen, a sophomore in high school.

It was then that I first vaguely conceived the grand ambition of trying to record in fiction the world in which I was growing up, the whole complex network of families, most of them Irish, known to each other for generations, since their early years in Buffalo's colorful old First Ward. At first, these over-confident plans got no further along than long, penciled synposes (some of which I still have), apparently setting down everything that I had ever heard of happening not only to all my own relatives but to every one else they knew. (And indeed, some novels do appear to have been written that way!) The results, needless to say, read like utter chaos--an endless jumble of uncharacterized names and totally undeveloped narrative elements. Only the raw material was there.

By college years (at Canisius), the synposes, now typed, had grown noticeably simpler, as the realization gradually dawned that just because things happened in a certain way in real life, they did not necessarily make good fiction; in fact, usually quite the reverse is true. I began to see that a number of roughly similar people whose actual lives offered perhaps only one phase of interest to me might far better merge into one character more significant and typical than any one of the original prototypesa new person, in some ways like all of them, yet different from any individual. (One unpredictable consequence of this process has been the eagerness with which Buffalo readers who recognize, or think they do, some real incident or idiosyncrasy, promptly jump to the conclusion that the whole character must be quite literally "taken from" this or that person-though any writer of fiction could tell them that it is never that simple.)

By the same method of trial and error, I also learned that events unrelated in life can be brought together in fiction but only by a carefully linked chain of cause and effect firmly grounded in character and environment-never by chance, accident, coincidence or other heavyhanded contrivance. Likewise, the more bizarre, striking or obviously dramatic an incident (the very kind that had at first attracted me), the less usable it is in realistic fiction, which must always be more consistent and probable than life to maintain its illusion. Thus, by the time I graduated from college, the once unwieldly mass of material had been molded into the shape that it has essentially retained ever since. Perhaps a better metaphor would be to say that it had "crystallized," for, of course, much of the process of elimination and selection is subconscious. By some sure intuition, I knew when I had arrived at the master plan which would serve me from then on. My various fictitious families had taken on the relationships, even the names, that they still bear. Thus I may quite truthfully say that I have known these particular people for more than twenty years; by now, they are far more real to me than their halfforgotten sources or even than some of the people I see every day. All the more mature reflections and observations that have naturally occurred in the intervening decades have inevitably accumulated around them, for they are my fictional epitome of the only world I feel I know well enough to try to portray. Writing the novels, then, has been a matter of exploring the full significance of material long familiar, of bringing to life an interwoven imaginary detail events I had always seen in outline-and also, of course, knowing just when I was ready to undertake each part.

Meanwhile, an independent story, much simpler, had occurred to me while in college and virtually wrote itself during a few months while I was getting my Master's degree at the Catholic University of America. This became my first novel, Less Than the Angels (Bruce, 1946). Its critical and popular success immediately encouraged me to start turning my more ambitious project into reality. Though I had always visualized the whole thing as one long novel, experience soon proved that for proper development of all the incidents and story lines, complete with period atmosphere and psychological development, not one but several novels would be required. Thus it has become a trilogy: Days Beyond Recall (Bruce, 1949) which took the Shanahan family and their connections from the turn of the century through World War I, The House of Shanahan (Doubleday, 1952), which carried them to the heights of the Roaring '20's, and now at last, Gone Tomorrow (Bruce, 1960), which follows them from 1929 through 1932. (But since I still have folders of unused equally firsthand material covering the earlier generations from the 1870's through the 1890's, the trilogy may yet turn into a tetrology.)

In college, I turned out a good deal of well-received material for the newspaper, magazine, and yearbook, but anyone who has taught college knows how common are such youthful displays of apparent talent, and how little they mean in terms of a professional future. The uncritical admiration of non-writing friends can scarcely be taken as real encouragement, for to them, as Dr. Johnson said in likening a woman preacher to a talking dog, the wonder is not that it was done well but that it was done at all. Until the reception of Less Than the Angels, I had no way of knowing whether I was on the right literary track, or on any at all. Though I occasionally used to read books on fictional technique (which generally only confirmed what I had already figured out for myself), I never took any writing courses, and I have also refused to teach any, convinced as I am that any real writer will eventually learn to solve his own problems in his own way. I have certainly never tried to follow the style or methods of any other writer, but I have always found myself most drawn to novelists like Jane Austen, Thackeray, Edith Wharton, Proust, and Marquand-all ironic observers of recognizable social milieux, rather than to Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, and other literary gods of my generation, who have created their own subjective worlds (often with such stylistic magic that one almost forgets how much of life has been left out).

On a more practical level, of course, I had to face the problem of earning a living. Not many writers in modern America can hope to live comfortably on their creative efforts alone, nor have I ever expected to do so (not even in the first flush of success, when I was twenty-six). Of the available alternatives (other than temporary grants from foundations), the two commonest are teaching, usually on a college or university level, and some sort of commercial writing. To me, there can be no comparison between the two. I cannot imagine anything drearier, or more destructive to creative talent, than having to spend one's time and energy grinding out TV commercials, advertising slogans or articles of no importance, or tailoring scripts to suit the sponsor, producer or star. To me, teaching and writing offer a refreshing change from each other, and I am equally happy in both.


This brings me to another reason for my satisfaction in the completion of Gone Tomorrow-I have succeeded in disproving the popular academic myth that the extensive scholarly research required for a Ph.D. is bound to stifle or kill a writer's creative ability. This is sheer nonsense-dangerous nonsense, at that-spread, I would suspect, largely by those who have never succeeded in either field. I hope my own experience may serve to encourage young writers majoring in English not to be frightened away by this bugbear from graduate work or college teaching, where the creative-minded are needed more than ever.

During the three years of exhaustive (and exhausting) work I put into attaining the doctorate the hard way (one year of residence, two of working on the dissertation in absentia while teaching in New York), it is true that I dared not take the time for any extended fictional effort. In fact, when the Knights of Columbus fellowship which had enabled me to get my Master's at the Catholic University was renewed on my application eleven years later, I temporarily put aside the novel which I had begun, in order to concentrate entirely on the degree. As my dissertation was on The Catholic in the Eighteenth Century Novel (CUA Press, 1956) possibly my own experience as a novelist may have helped me to evaluate, analyze and trace essential patterns in the many-volumed sagas of suffering sensibility that supplied the circulating library trade of two centuries ago; but the austere, impersonal, objective style in which scholarly conclusions are to be couched is, of course, the very opposite of the warm, vivid concreteness at which the creative writer aims.


However, just as I had written the first draft for Less Than the Angels while getting my Master's (inspired by the example of Jane Austen, my thesis subject), so, while struggling toward the doctorate, I continued to review books and films for various magazines and also worked on a three-act play, which, even if never produced, still gave me the creative outlet I needed at the time. Then, too, throughout these years, new impressions and ideas for the novel constantly occurred, to be jotted down and filed away for future reference. When I finally attained the Ph.D. in 1956, I lost no time in returning to my real love, fiction. By way of immediate practice, I tried a short story based on a character from the novels, sold it to a magazine, and was encouraged to believe what I had felt all along, that I had not lost whatever ability I had ever had.

Thus the demands of the doctorate had done me no discernible harm, and in my other profession the degree, of course, has made all the difference. It brought an immediate promotion in the graduate school of St. John's University, Brooklyn, where I was then teaching, and ultimately made possible my appointment in 1960 as full professor and chairman of the English department at the new Queensborough Community College, sponsored by the State and the City of New York. As a by-product of the dissertation, I came across a decidedly off-beat subject for a scholarly article, Penelope Aubin: Forgotten Catholic Novelist, which appeared in Renascence. My researches also provided material for several more such articles, from which only more pressing writing projects have kept me.

After getting the degree, it took me nearly three years more to finish the novel Cone Tomorrow, but this 1 blame largely on the fact that I was teaching in two colleges, St. John's and City.

Though I still return to Buffalo several times a year, to visit my mother and friends there, I now live alone in an apartment on Manhattan's east side, on what I think is one of the loveliest streets in New York, East Seventieth, in a beautifully shaded block lined with Georgian town houses in varying shades of rosy brick. Of the myriad attractions of New York, undoubtedly the main one for me is the theatre, which has been a lifelong interest. My almost equally keen interest in the screen has enabled me for the past several years to serve as film critic for Marriage magazine.

I am also president of the Shakespeare Club of New York, active in the English Graduate Association of New York University (where I took a second minor for the doctorate), and just recently, sponsored by biographer Marchette Chute, I have joined the P.E.N. Club-so perhaps at last I may get to know some other writers. But no matter how my acquaintance here may widen through the years, I shall probably continue to convey my fictional observations in terms of people like those with whom I grew up. As Willa Cather observed, a writer does not choose his material, he adjusts himself to it, since it was basically absorbed before he was ten. But then, too, as Miss Cather herself was advised by Sarah Orne Jewett, "How well you must know the world before you can begin to write about the parish!"

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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