An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines: What was your inspiration for A Son Called Gabriel and why did you chose this particular era for the setting of the novel?
Damian McNicholl: The truth was my inspiration. A Son Called Gabriel is fiction rooted in experience and I tried to write a story about a young boy's horrified discovery that he is attracted to members of his own sex in both a humorous and poignant way.
The era, late 60s and 70s Northern Ireland, was a very exciting period because the Catholic majority took to the streets to protest their subjugation and the Protestant majority, abetted by Britain, tried their damndest to crush them and I wanted to parallel the struggle for civil rights with the young protagonist's struggle over what he 's becoming.
Noel and Henry are pivotal characters in Gabrielís childhood, although for different reasons. Can you discuss the significance of each of these boys in Gabrielís development?
Henry represents the schoolyard bully that many people face in their childhood. He is ferocious, intimidating and Gabriel is frightened of him, yet he stands up to Henry when required and this shows the boy has mettle. Gabriel's encounters with the Henry and attitude toward him upon his demise make him a more interesting protagonist, I feel. Noel is a neighbor, a boy who's older than Gabriel by five years, who's more knowledgeable about sex and he's also cunning and exploits Gabriel's naivetť.
Thereís an interesting dichotomy in the Catholic religion vs. the grownupís version of how they practice their beliefs, rationalizing certain behaviors. But to a young boy, God and his Church are absolute. How is Gabrielís conscience formed by the very rigorous tenets of Catholicism?
Gabriel's belief system is but a mirror image of his mother's when he's a child. Mrs. Harkin is a Catholic stalwart, someone who believes absolutely in all the tenets of that religion including the Pope's infallibility. As such, his conscience is wholly formed by his Catholicism and that's why he has enormous difficulty and experiences terror as he matures and finds he's attracted to other boys. Later, as he becomes more educated and worldly, he recognizes that there is hypocrisy in the Catholic Church and his belief system diverges from that of his mother's and the members of his community and, as an intelligent boy, he brings this to her attention.
In this regard, how does guilt factor into Gabrielís self-esteem?
Again, in my opinion itís a reckless depression that drives him to seek any human interaction, and then, too, that attraction to Jenny.
In this regard, how does guilt factor into Gabrielís self-esteem?
Both the bullying and his feelings of guilt over what he may be becoming affect the boy's self-esteem enormously. Gabriel is a funny, highly intelligent and likeable child, but he is also dogged by low self-esteem as a result of his experiences in this unforgiving environment.
There is no sex education for children in Gabrielís school, nor is it forthcoming at home, except in a limited amount. How does this lack of information affect Gabrielís understanding of his own impulses?
He allows Noel to take advantage of him because he does not realize what is going on and has no frame of reference. Noel, in effect, becomes his 'teacher' during this period and misinforms him for his own selfish purposes.
When Gabrielís mother explains the facts of life, Catholic-style, Gabriel realizes that Noel has lied to him. What is the significance of this betrayal for Gabriel?
Gabriel is horrified and filled with shame. His world is essentially ripped apart. That's why he confronts Noel and tells him that they will never do anything together again. In fact, overnight, he grows to despise Noel and wishes Noel was old enough to leave home and join the merchant navy as he wants to do so that Gabriel would never have to interact with him again.
If what Gabriel is doing with Noel is an abomination and unnatural, why does Gabriel understand that he can never confess this sin? How can he interpret such an ambiguous message?
There is no ambiguity here. It's a combination of his low self esteem and huge sense of Irish Catholic guilt coming into play. He simply cannot confess to the priest because he figures the priest would be disgusted and angry to the extent he'd come out of the confessional and berate and shame him in front of neighbors, a taboo in that society. Later, for the same reason, he is reluctant to divulge his secrets to his Uncle Brendan who was once a priest in the African foreign missions.
About the time Gabriel starts at St. Malachyís, he is aware of a growing aversion to his father. He also notices that his father treats James better than him. How does this growing enmity between father and son define their future relationship?
Well, I think the novel sums it up best when Gabriel makes the transition, albeit unilaterally, after a terrible row with his father and resolves to consider him from henceforth as 'Daddy' no longer, but rather as 'Father.' He feels the word 'father' is the perfect description of how he feels about the man: it's formal, cold and 'ideally remote, just the perfect word to define how their future relationship will continue. And in fact that's exactly what happens; Gabriel becomes more and more estranged from him until he reaches a stage where he can't even bear to be in an automobile alone with him.
Gabrielís physical explorations with Connor are couched in their interest in girls. When Connor calls a halt to their practices, Connor makes it clear that homosexuality disgust him. How significant is this loss to Gabriel? Why?
I think boys who experiment among themselves at Gabriel and Connor's age always include references to girls as they experiment. It ratifies their curiosity...makes what they are doing okay. However, in Gabriel's case, he's become aware that his feelings for boys may be somewhat more permanent and it is preying on his mind. That's why he asks Connor if he ever thinks about boys instead of girls 'for a change' while they're experimenting together. When Connor reacts in horror and says they must stop all contact with one another or they'll become 'queer', Gabriel is distraught. He realizes something terrible is wrong, that he is attracted to boys and he must stop it. He doesn't want to be this way. He wants to be attracted only to girls, to be able to marry and have children one day. That's why he creeps to the bathroom in the dead of night and prays fervently to God to 'cure' him and indeed actually believes God speaks to him.
After the incident with Father Cornelius, Gabriel realizes that heíll never spurn God because then heíll have nothing. But acceptance of this God means self-condemnation. What does such a moral dilemma portend for this young man?
Gabriel is in the classic young, intelligent Catholic man's dilemma here. He has cast off the childish mantle of total servility to priests and the Catholic Church which is something the people in his community have never done because they haven't ever questioned their faith. They've taken the simple route, the route of allowing the church to define what and what is not sinful. Gabriel needs God in his life because he's still Catholic and can't bear to believe that there might be no God. He cannot bear to think he would have to deal with this problem alone. And, as an intelligent boy, Gabriel begins to develop his own relationship with God, one in which he talks to Him about the problems in his life, even berating Him at times for making him homosexual. It's a spiritual maturing and I think Gabriel does slowly come to see that God will not condemn him for what he may be becoming. That's why he asks the priest the questions he does when his mother takes him to the local curate when he confesses his fear that he is a homosexual to her.
Gabriel clings to the belief that he isnít a homosexual, that this is only a phase that will pass. Once he articulates his anxiety, is this a turning point in his eventual acceptance? Why/ why not?
I think it's important to remember that this is 70s Northern Ireland and it's a conservative land, still is to this day, actually. Therefore, his inability to accept his sexuality must be viewed in this light. It is the rigid combination of his religious and cultural upbringing that will not allow him to accept himself. Even though he still clings to the belief that his homosexual attractions may be a phase, a door does open to possible acceptance after his talk with the local priest and this is reflected in the responses he gives his mother. I leave the whole question open to the reader to decide whether Gabriel will or will not accept his situation.
The Harkins are firmly in support of the IRA. How does the incipient violence of strained relations between Catholics and Protestants affect the Harkin family?
I think it's more accurate to say that Mr. Harkin is a fervent supporter of the IRA. His wife, while a nationalist at heart, is much more pragmatic. She wishes to see a peaceful solution to the Irish strife, wants Protestants and Catholics to work together, but does not necessarily believe a United Ireland is the only solution to the province's problems given the corruption and poverty in the Irish Republic.
The incipient violence exacerbates the divergence in opinion between the parents and splits the family into two camps. Mr. Harkin is fully accepting that violence may be necessary to free his homeland from the yoke of British rule and is willing to run the risk of sheltering an IRA volunteer on the run. His son James believes in everything his father believes in, which is one reason why Gabriel, rightly or wrongly, perceives that their father is more favorably disposed toward James. Mrs. Harkin, on the other hand, does not want the IRA man in her house because she fears he could influence her children, particularly the boys, to take up arms later in life. She is also realistic and does not paint all Protestants with the same brush, recognizing that not all of them are bigots, and reminds her husband that some have helped him by arranging loans when he set up his construction business. I think it's fair to say Gabriel (and his sisters) shares a similar view to his mother, which is something his father recognizes and at times berates Gabriel for his views, even to the extent of accusing him of being far too English and not a proper Irishman.
After their home is raided by the British troops, Gabrielís father is arrested and later released. For a while, father and son enjoy a brief period of affection. Does this constant ambivalence with his father undermine Gabrielís self-confidence? How?
During Gabriel's childhood, as with the bullying, his feelings that his father does not care for him as much as he does James does add to the boy's low self-esteem. His need for his father's love and attention is portrayed succinctly in the scene where his father is teaching him how to swim because we see how Gabriel needs to be held close by him, how he doesn't want the moment to pass, how he would do anything to please him. When his father doesn't understand why his son doesn't use violence against the bullies, Gabriel is crushed and feels his father is rejecting him. Of course, that undermines the boy's confidence. But as he grows older, Gabriel's own problems occupy his mind and, while he resents his father still, I don't think their estrangement adds to his lack of self-confidence. What undermines his self-confidence is his confused sexuality.
Gabrielís parents, indeed the whole family, kept a critical truth from him. How does the revelation affect his relationship with his mother?
The revelation is earth-shattering. It goes right to the core of who he believed he is as an individual, of who he is as a son, of who he is as a brother. And for a short time, he rejects his mother and even hates her. But his own struggles have made him an adolescent capable of showing great compassion for others, and this he does show to her. The confusion remains, but his anger subsides.
Brendan is an important figure in the Harkin family. How do his life choices and the changes he finally makes affect the family dynamic? As a symbol of the family pride, what would the rejection of a vocation mean for Brendanís family?
He occupies less pages than other characters, but he is tremendously important. A devoutly Catholic family, Brendan's choices throw them into a state of great confusion and fear. They are a typically Irish family, obsessed with keeping up appearances among their neighbors, living in fear of being the subject of scandal, and Brendan's choices render them the subject of community scrutiny and ridicule.
The family is absurdly proud and feel it would diminish their status in the eyes of this very parochial community. It's as if they'd have an indelible black mark entered against their name as a result of Brendan's behavior and they'd be the topic of ill conversation for months.
Uncle Brendan is very attentive to Gabriel when he visits and tries to give the boy emotional support. Does Gabriel ever suspect that there is an underlying family secret here? Why/ why not?
Gabriel knows there is a family secret concerning his uncle all throughout his childhood, but also learns quickly that inquiring about Brendan's past is a taboo subject. Throughout the novel, on several occasions, he tries to fish for information about his uncle's past but is rebuffed, even admonished. He senses the secret from his grandmother's asides, also overhears the adults talking in whispered tones when Brendan announces he's coming home for a visit after being away for many years. And as a teenager, he catches his mother out on a lie when they discuss Brendan.
How can Gabriel resolve the reality of his homosexuality and his relationship with his Irish Catholic family?
I think Gabriel's principal task is resolving his looming homosexuality with himself in the novel. Thereafter, will come resolution between that and his familial relationships, which will be dealt with in a future sequel.
Are there any favorite authors who have influenced your writing?
I've been influenced by Austen and feel the novel's humor owes a debt to her. Hardy allowed me to see that a rural environment can be a compelling setting for a novel, albeit his was English.
Are you working on another novel? If so, can you share something about it with us?
My latest novel is entitled Unusual Steps: A London Tale. It's really quite different from A Son Called Gabriel in that it's a dark comedy. The story revolves around three characters living in a London Street: there's Julia, a very assertive Englishwoman who finds herself blackmailed at her job at Heathrow; there's Marcus, a young Irishman who flees his home in Northern Ireland; and Tilly Hartley who's a most inquisitive neighbor. I see it as a series, a bit like Tales of the City, only this time we're in Thatcherite London.
Do you have any advice for would-be writers?
If you have a story, just sit and write it through and don't stop until it's done. After that, edit it and re-edit until you're convinced you never want to read another page of it ever again. After that, pack it up and send it off to an agent.
Damian McNicholl was born in Northern Ireland and attended law school in Britain. He came to the United States and worked as an attorney while writing A SON CALLED GABRIEL. He lives in Pennsylvania and is currently at work on his second novel.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Damian McNicholl, author of A Son Called Gabriel (see accompanying review), about his book via email for curledup.com. No part
of this interview may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2005.